Andre Nel: He's always in your face, and there's no hiding place

South Africa's fiery fast bowler can be engaging - and enraging. Stephen Brenkley talks to a man whose pride in his country is highly visible
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The Independent Online

Fast bowlers fall into two broad categories. There are those who let their trade speak for itself: whistle it through and, miss or hit, walk back to their mark and get on with it. Stephen Harmison and almost all the great West Indians belong in this camp. Their reasoning is that the job is quite bloody hard work enough, thank you very much, without expending superfluous energy.

Then there are those who deem it necessary to be on the batsman's case, mouthing gratuitous insults and remaining perpetually angry. For 10 years, Glenn McGrath has been the leading example of this, though Allan Donald and Shoaib Akhtar have had their huffy, grimacing moments.

Andre Nel is firmly with the second brigade. This is still early in his international career, but the way things are going he could become the patron of extremely irascible fast bowlers. He barks, scowls, cajoles, sneers and bristles. He is not averse to doing all this from a yard away, and you fear that he may be about to do something more excessive.

Injury meant that he played only one Test in the series against England this winter, and his international career so far stretches to only 11 Tests and 25 one-day internationals. Yet he has engaged and enraged spectators and television audiences wherever he has played.

The fact that Nel also has plenty of previous both on and off the pitch marks him out as a character. People cannot stop talking about him because he is always up to something. His captain, Graeme Smith, described him as "a bit of a nutter with white line fever", obviously a potent combination. He must be alone in having been married in the middle of a Test match (against West Indies last year; the ceremony had been arranged 10 months earlier and was moved back from 4.30pm to 6.30pm). To talk to him is to be confronted by a mass of contradictions and a welter of passion, by a highly strung, vulnerable man with a purpose. A changed man with a purpose, he would have it.

"I am passionate about playing for my country," he said last week during a brief hiatus in the one-day circus which is at present touring South Africa. "It makes me so proud, my country. But I've got to show aggression when I bowl, it's part of me, of who I am. The Afrikaans player is always passionate about playing for his country. It's the way you're brought up, to believe that it is a privilege.

"I do sometimes take it too far but you only get one chance, you don't want to give it away, you want to do it so badly. It's all tied up with the Voortrek. It's part and parcel of the way we've been brought up, of our history and culture. We had a tough time with the Zulus and the British."

The Voortrekkers helped to give South Africa its distinctive character. Thousands upon thousands of them trekked across the country from the Western Cape, upset by British rule, and established themselves in isolated communities further north. As Nel observed, those experiences still drive them on.

He was brought up in Boksburg, a town in eastern Gauteng where Afrikaans culture dominated. He was imbued with a work ethic, with passion, with religion and with rugby. Cricket has only become part of the typical Afrikaans upbringing in the past 20 years or so, and they have embraced it so thoroughly that they are now a huge presence in South Africa's team.

"Cricket is big, but rugby is still massive," said Nel. "In the area I grew up in, quite a small town, a little bit of a rough area, you played rugby to show your manhood. I played cricket because I liked being in the open, but we didn't have the coaching of an English school." Nel was a promising rugby player as well as a cricketer, but the time came in his late teens when his father advised him to choose. He opted for cricket, partly because he had just grown tall - too tall for a fly-half by half - and had become a quick bowler. He also took into account the probability that he would have a longer career and simply had a better chance of doing what he so desperately desired, playing for his country.

He has not made his passage easy. As he himself observed, the Nel rap-sheet is long. The first time he became a public hate figure was when he felled Allan Donald with a bouncer while playing for Easterns. There was tumult among the populus - partly because there was a suspicion that Ray Jennings, then the coach of Easterns and now coach of South Africa, had instructed his bowlers to make sure they hit Donald, and partly because Donald is a national hero. Jennings got off the charge after conceding that he might have said it but it was a joke. Nel, meanwhile, was in a state of anguish, because Donald was his hero.

There was another on-field incident when he was fined for a seething exchange with the Natal batsman Goolam Bodi. Then, on his first tour, of the West Indies, he was one of five players charged with smoking marijuana. Finally (so far), he was sent back from a tour of Australia with South Africa A in November 2003 when he was caught in a drunken state by Hobart police driving home the team bus after a night out. Contrition exudes from every pore.

"You're only human, you make mistakes," he said. "I'm not trying to get out of anything, but sometimes there is a different story, sometimes you get seen as something you're not. That driving thing, I was the soberest of all by far. My mates were far more pissed than me. It's not an excuse. What scared me then was that I might not come back."

For much of this time, it has been possible to wonder if Nel is the real McCoy; that is, a proper fast bowler. There has been the suspicion that the aggression was accompanied by lollipop bowling. But against West Indies last season he dismissed Brian Lara five times and gave him and other left-handers the genuine hurry-up from round the wicket.

In New Zealand a few weeks later he was disappointing, but claims to have had a kind of epiphany in the final Test in Wellington. With Gary Kirsten offering advice from mid-off he wore down Stephen Fleming with a sequence of parsimonious overs before inducing a mishook.

"That helped me to realise what Test cricket is all about: be patient, be disciplined, be smarter and wiser," he said. Nel's whole conversation is laced with the observation that he has become a much smarter person. He was much smarter after spending his first lengthy period away from home, playing for Millom in Cumbria as a 19-year-old. He was much smarter after meeting Jennings, a man who has become his second father and who shares his passion and energy. And he is much smarter after his recent five-month lay-off caused by pinched nerves in his back, near enough to a disc to place his long-term future in doubt.

"Maybe it made me wiser and smarter. I did a bit of soul-searching, I looked at a few videos, realised I was losing control and didn't know what I was doing it for. For the first time my wife and I spent some time together and did a lot of talking about life generally and what we want to do with our lives. You have to grow as a person, as an individual."

There was no doubt that England were extremely aware of his presence at Centurion. He bowled quickly, he worked himself up into a real state in the first innings, he gallivanted down the pitch and snarled. He also, it has to be said, showed what he considers his best asset, "my big heart". He hit Andrew Strauss on the shoulder before dismissing him two balls later, he gave Ashley Giles a real working-over before bowling him, in his excitement almost knocking the batsmen over in his follow-through. He bowled Graham Thorpe with a lacerating inswinger from round the wicket.

Throughout, he made his captain, Smith, a constant chirper himself, appear a model of restraint. As Smith said: "He's sitting next to me in the dressing room and you can see his feet twitching as he gets close to the start."

Strauss confirmed Nel's credentials. "He's fiery, he's at you and he comes at you hard. I'm not sure if he's speaking in Afrikaans or not, but I try not to listen too closely. They came at us very hard, as hard as they have done all series," he said after the Fifth Test at Centurion.

The advent of Jennings as national coach has delighted Nel. Second dad, and the man who has studied his bowling more than anybody else. "I don't have a great action but I do have a strong wrist, and as a former keeper he realised what I could do with it. He shares my passion."

Nel seems to have accepted his lot. "I'm never going to be the most loved person, but I'm happy doing my thing for my country. I'm not the same person away from cricket. I'm probably the most quiet, relaxed person you could meet. I don't like upsetting people." And he sounded convinced and convincing.