Anrich Nortje’s performance on day one of this week’s second Test in Pune is, unfortunately, indicative of the Proteas’ muddled thinking and game plans in India.
This is a Proteas Test XI plotting life after Dale Steyn, in conditions reasonably foreign to fast bowlers. For now, if not Lungi Ngidi, Nortje is the incumbent solution.
Affording a Test debut to a fast bowler whose burgeoning favour is built on the back of a handful of strong performances in the Mzansi Super League was arguably bound to backfire.
Yes, the right-arm pace ace has 162 wickets to show for 47 first-class matches. But he hasn’t played the longest format since December 2018 – and the period since has been marred by injury and dotted with limited-overs appearances for the Proteas and South Africa A.
England effectively fast-tracked Jofra Archer into the XI for this year’s Ashes series. He, too, hadn’t played much first-class cricket prior to mid-August’s debut at Lord’s. Archer was aided by characteristic speed, a frame unhindered by major injury and relished conditions primed for fast bowling. Nortje isn’t working with any of these advantages in India.
Opportunity knocked for Nortje to perform. Replacing spinner Dane Piedt in the XI, he wasn’t filling the role vacated by a fellow fast bowler and wasn’t subjected to the pressure associated with that. The Proteas opted for a complete change. The addition of extra pace was required, but in Ngidi, not Nortje. Ngidi was one of the few success stories of South Africa A’s first-class series against India A last month.
Nortje can reflect on a short-sighted Thursday. He bowled too full to Mayank Agarwal, who simply milked the additional pace on the drive. When lengths were pegged back a bit, Nortje was threatening, but too often defaulted to pitching the ball further down the deck. The late swing he might have been anticipating hardly arrived. The steep bounce generated by Kagiso Rabada wasn’t matched.
Friday will yield the opportunity to improve. The second new ball is a mere five overs old and – if Vernon Philander isn’t able to strike as was the case on Thursday morning – Nortje at least deserves an early chance before Maharaj and Muthusamy re-enter the attack.
He will likely be faced with one of Test cricket’s greatest challenges: bowling to the talismanic Kohli, in subcontinental conditions, with 300-plus runs already registered. That opening spell could galvanise or demotivate Nortje, who is quickly learning a hard lesson about the ease of T20 fame versus the attrition of Test cricket.
Photo: Gallo Images