Anrich Nortje: ANOTHER older 'newcomer' of the year

Anrich Nortje (Gallo Images)
Anrich Nortje (Gallo Images)
  • For the second year in a row, an unusually more seasoned player has won Proteas "newcomer of the year".
  • Nortje began his Test career some five years behind illustrious predecessor Dale Steyn.
  • His wickets-leading series against England last summer suggests he will make up for lost time with a vengeance.

Blossoming Proteas pace bowler Anrich Nortje turns 27 in November, early in the next South African season... round about the time a player of his specific trade might well be branded in his prime.

So it seems a little unusual at first glance for him to be handed the laurel of Proteas men's "Newcomer of the Year" at the weekend's annual Cricket South Africa Awards (conducted on a virtual basis due to the coronavirus pandemic).

But it is also far from unheard of, nor can it be branded in any way questionable on merit grounds, as the tearaway Nortje has burst onto the international scene in a significant way over the past several months.

It is the second year in a row that the award in that category - it would be natural to assume it might veer toward younger players, wouldn't it? - has gone to a cricketer who has cut his teeth for some time domestically before a call-up to the highest levels of the game.

At last year's ceremony, middle-order batsman Rassie van der Dussen earned the equivalent mantle, and he was already 30 at the time.

The last time the award went to a more conventional Young Turk, if you like, was at the 2018 banquet, when Aiden Markram, then 23, bagged it.

The more advanced ages of Nortje and Van der Dussen, the two most recent recipients, seem to send out a pretty positive reminder to stalwarts of the often soulless, spectator-starved domestic franchise environment that consistency - or late blooming - at that level can eventually lead to elevation to the Proteas' ranks.

Although he hasn't won the "newcomer" gong, Pieter Malan is another example from last season of a player cracking the SA nod at a relatively advanced age: he made his Test debut aged 30 in the glamour New Year fixture against England at Newlands and produced a 369-minute vigil in the second innings to help a gallant bid to save the match for the host nation.

Nortje, it has to be said, took some time to burn sufficiently brightly to be recognised by the national selectors.

While the product of Uitenhage made his first-class debut at a youthful 19 for Eastern Province against Namibia at Windhoek (February 2013) in the slightly lower-tier CSA Provincial Three-Day Competition, the distraction of a university career - he has a B.Com from NMMU - goes some way to explaining why it took a handful of further seasons for him to become properly noticed at higher franchise level for the Warriors.

He picked up a rich harvest of 20 wickets in four matches in 2016/17, but late 2018, it can feasibly be argued, was really when his shares soared best for national duty.

Nortje was penetrative, speedy and hostile for Cape Town Blitz in the inaugural edition of the Mzansi Super League then... before his tournament was cruelly cut short by the need for ankle surgery.

Successfully rehabilitated from that setback, Nortje made his first two Test appearances for the Proteas on what can most politely be described as the "difficult" (again!) tour of India at the outset of last summer.

He earned a less than princely 1/179 across successive Tests in Pune and Ranchi... admittedly on terrain that is often deemed graveyard stuff, especially for rookies in the art of pace bowling at the premier level.

But then it all changed as he very earnestly picked up the personal pieces, if you like, for the headline home series against England.

The slim, agile Nortje was a routine menace to English batsmen despite South Africa's 3-1 series reverse, taking 18 wickets (next best Stuart Broad and Kagiso Rabada: each 14) at an average of 27, including a first-time five-wicket haul at the Wanderers.

He then bowled with continued gusto in three end-of-season home ODIs against old enemies Australia, taking two wickets in each of the three matches en route to a pleasing 3-0 SA sweep.

Nortje's earlier possibilities as an international competitor, of course, were thwarted in no small measure by the presence at Test level until not too long ago of such leading lights as Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander, Morne Morkel and Duanne Olivier - all of them now, for varying reasons, no longer available to the cause.

To confirm that Nortje is a relatively late starter for the Proteas, it is worth comparing him to someone like the legendary Steyn - their bowling styles and athletic builds not at all dissimilar - for success in the Test wickets column at the age Nortje is now: 26 and some eight months.

The revered "Phalaborwa Express" debuted for the country at age 21, so an almost five-year headstart on Nortje.

By the time he got to his successor's present age, Steyn already boasted just short of 200 Test wickets - not much fewer than half of his eventual, SA record tally of 439.

Hardly helped by a gradually dwindling tally of Test matches in the current climate and the further, lengthy disruption of the coronavirus this year, Nortje isn't going to be threatening too many Steyn stats landmarks.

But at least this slightly belated "newcomer" is firmly part of the Proteas' furniture for several years to come...

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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