Cape Town - If the Proteas looked largely like occupants of a tented camp about to be shambolically flattened by a fierce wind on Saturday, Anrich Nortje stood contrastingly as tall as the Burj Khalifa.
The lean pace bowler’s passion, intensity and durability rose to the fore on day two of the final Test against England at the Wanderers ... and all while those qualities looked disturbingly economical in several around him for the generally embattled, cowed-looking national team.
Joe Root’s tourists, 2-1 to the good, made very damaging - if you were watching through South African eyes - strides toward securing the series, first advancing briskly to a well-above-average completed first innings total at the venue of precisely 400 and then getting stuck with lustre into the Proteas’ fragile top order.
They limped to another utterly deflating score of 88 for six by stumps, still trailing by a gaping 312 and with follow-on options by these rampant foes against them continuing to look extremely de rigueur.
In a development that was less than fitting in the lengthening shadows at the Bullring, Nortje’s was the last wicket to fall, as a No 7 night-watchman.
But even as he nicked off against lively Mark Wood after a 16-ball vigil, an admiring commentator Michael Holding - who had not favoured his installation in that capacity, feeling he deserved better after earlier bowling valour - made the valid point that Nortje had done his primary job anyway, as there wasn’t time for another batsman to take guard.
South Africa were left with a lone significant hope for batting salvation, Quinton de Kock, unbeaten on a welcome, typically enterprising 32 and again looking a cut or three above any frontline colleague for quality in the present, gloomy climate.
But this is a team in something seriously close now to freefall, captain Faf du Plessis’s ongoing own problems in statistical delivery (out for three on Saturday, even if with a debatable dose of TV review misfortune) clearly impacting to a swelling degree on his leadership of a confidence-stripped crew.
That adverse backdrop, though, somehow only underlined the against-the-grain excellence of Nortje, the pride of Uitenhage, as an otherwise wretched day for the Proteas saw him mark the occasion of his maiden five-wicket haul in a Test match (his sixth).
The 26-year-old was the one factor in South Africa’s frankly madcap five-strong all-seam attack to properly, consistently trouble the English batsmen in their brisk-tempo push toward an “insurance” first-dig total.
Regularly clocking figures around the 145km/h mark on the speed-gun, Nortje did his very damnedest to restrict the visitors to something acceptably closer to the 300-mark their score should have been, ripping out all of Ollie Pope, Root and Sam Curran in the space of five dramatic overs that fleetingly suggested the Proteas were right back in the battle at 269 for seven.
He duly completed his five-for a little later, snaring Chris Woakes (at a still not out-of-hand 318 for nine) to spark the poignant event of Vernon Philander, in his last Test match, running up to give him the ball in order to raise it to the crowd on his popular, massively warranted landmark.
But by then even the resilient, willing Nortje - he ended with figures of 5/110 - was running a little low on gas: with him removed from the attack, what followed was a roughly nine-over stint of last-wicket carnage from Wood and Stuart Broad, who merrily pillaged a further 82 runs as the Proteas harrowingly lost the plot in every respect.
He is only human, and humans - especially of the shock-bowling kind - regrettably tend not to be able to bowl all day.
Still, Nortje’s statistical achievement in his eighth bowling innings, and fourth Test on South African soil, was only made more eye-opening by the fact that it had taken a dazzlingly illustrious Proteas predecessor, Dale Steyn, also eight innings to mark his first five-wicket bag (5/47 against New Zealand at Centurion in April 2006).
Now leading the series wickets column across both sides with 16, he won rich praise on Saturday from SuperSport pundits.
“A lot of character, this guy,” offered Mark Nicholas, while Mike Haysman opined: “He’s dug deep ... clearly a fit lad.”
This was the tribute from former national coach Eric Simons: “He has run in for his captain. Apparently he has a bit of a niggle, too, which only further shows that character. There’s clear-thinking (from him) as well ... very impressive.”
Another iconic figure from past Test series between these opponents, Mike Atherton, said: “You can see that he gives his all in every department; a terrific attribute for any cricketer to have.”
The ever-frank Kevin Pietersen weighed in with a volley of laurels, describing Nortje’s “courage, fight, application, aggression ... he was a man apart in some terrible bowling (toward the end of the England innings)”.
Beacon of longer-term hope in tough times for South Africa?
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