Andre Nel: Fast and loose cannon ready to fire with both barrels
South Africa's volatile paceman is set to replace Dale Steyn in the third Test against England at Edgbaston tomorrow. Jon Culley assesses a player with an alter ego called Gunther and a chequered past on and off the field
Tuesday 29 July 2008
Andre Nel has been labelled the loopiest man in cricket. Even his international captain, Graeme Smith, has called him "a bit of a nutter" and the description is one in which at times he clearly revels. But if there is a hint of the unhinged in his psyche, it is not unknown among purveyors of his cricketing trade.
If there is truth at all in football's generalisation that all goalkeepers are crazy, then something similar might be said of fast bowlers.
To a certain extent it is a necessary trait, aggressive intent towards the man at the other end of the pitch being almost as important in a successful fast bowler as it is in a boxer towards his opponent in the ring.
In those who leave the ball to do their talking, as it were, the madness is concealed, although it might be argued the ligament-straining, muscle-stretching contortions involved in delivering that ball, at speed, are a form of self-flagellation indicative of masochistic tendencies.
In others, though, there are disturbances that are unashamedly on the surface, manifest in threatening postures, gratuitous verbal insults and an almost permanent air of rage. Think Jeff Thomson, Allan Donald, Shoaib Akhtar.
It is into the latter category that 30-year-old Nel would see himself and like others to see him. As a young cricketer with international aspirations, it was Donald whom Nel idolised and it was during a moment when their paths crossed for the first time on a cricket field that the latter's volatile, emotional character was publicly exposed.
Playing for Easterns against Free State in South Africa's SuperSport series in February 2001, the 23-year-old Nel was under instructions from his coach to target Donald as Easterns pushed for the three wickets they needed for victory. Following those orders to the letter, he felled Donald with a fierce bouncer, then broke down in tears as Donald was forced to retire. He recovered his poise, however, to claim the last Free State wicket – and figures of 5 for 34 – as Easterns won by 109 runs.
It is that combustible nature that has accompanied him through his career, putting him at the centre of numerous moments of controversy in which his tendency to bark and growl at opponents, sometimes engaging in eyeball-to-eyeball confrontations in his follow-through, has gone beyond the acceptable.
He may blame the aggressive side of his character on the mythical Gunther – the name he gives to what he calls his snarling alter ego – but he has never been able to convince the authorities they should spare him punishment.
Nel was fined half of his match fee for using offensive language and gestures after dismissing the West Indies batsman Chris Gayle in a Test match in Johannesburg five years ago and was in trouble as recently as April this year, playing for Essex, when – ostensibly aiming at the stumps after fielding his own bowling – he hit Derbyshire's Steve Stubbings with the ball. That, along with using foul and abusive language, earned him six points under the England and Wales Cricket Board's disciplinary code.
England know something of that side of his character from first-hand experience, having faced South Africa in the World Cup in Barbados last year. Nel dismissed both Michael Vaughan and Kevin Pietersen, greeting the demise of the latter with an almost primeval scream.
Off the field, too, he has followed a chequered path. Sent home from a South Africa A tour to Australia in 2003 after being arrested but never charged for suspicion of being drunk at the wheel of a team minibus, he had been fined – along with four team-mates – for allegedly smoking marijuana on tour in the West Indies the previous year.
Yet his record as a bowler has made it difficult for the South African authorities to go as far as they might have liked in tackling his behaviour. A muscular fast bowler but one with intelligence as well as an intimidatory streak, in 34 appearances he has claimed 119 Test wickets at 31.22 runs each, including 6 for 81 against England at Centurion in January 2005.
Nel came into his own during South Africa's tour of Australia at the end of 2005, claiming 14 wickets in the Test series, including four on Boxing Day in the Melbourne Test and another four in the first innings in Sydney, where he defied the taunts of the Australian crowd.
He let himself down a little, however, during the return against the Australians at home, promising to wreak havoc but finishing with only six wickets in three Tests and becoming embroiled in a heated argument in the middle with Adam Gilchrist.
An illustration of his talent that England might do well to take more seriously is his record against Brian Lara. Nel dismissed the West Indian legend five times during South Africa's 2003-04 home Test series against West Indies and a further three times when the two sides met again in the Caribbean in 2005.
Nel's record with the bat is, however, nothing to crow about, although he goes into tomorrow's match on the back of a maiden first-class fifty against Bangladesh A at Worcester, in which he struck two fours and a six, albeit against an innocuous attack.
He is recalled to Test cricket for the first time since January, moreover, with something to prove.
When Nel was omitted from the South Africa squad picked to tour India earlier this year it was purely so that the national selectors could meet the requirements of their controversial "transformation targets" – otherwise known as the "quota" system. To ensure the squad contained the prescribed six "players of colour", the swing bowler Charl Langeveldt was picked ahead of Nel.
England's Kevin Pietersen cited the quota system as a major reason for his decision to quit South African cricket and there were fears initially that Nel would also turn his back on his country. He reacted to the decision by pulling out of a one-day international against Bangladesh in Dhaka the day after the squad was announced and, although he changed his mind, being named man of the match in the event, he failed to turn up at the presentation ceremony or news conference.
There were rumours that he was planning to join the rebel Indian Cricket League (ICL) or announce the end of his international career and return to England, where he had played county cricket for Northamptonshire – in 2003 – as well as Essex, as a Kolpak player.
It was only after being urged by the South African Cricketers' Association to step back before making any decision that he was dissuaded from either course of action.
"Andre is a good tourist, but he certainly doesn't like not playing," the South Africa coach Mickey Arthur says. "He wants to be involved all the time and there is a lot of pent-up energy and aggression there that will, hopefully, come out at Edgbaston. Every time he has bowled in the nets on this tour, he has wanted to prove to me that he belongs and that he should be in the team."
"Andre has got much better of late in learning how to channel his aggression in the right direction," Arthur said. "If he can, it gives him his competitive edge and I never want to take that away from him."
Andre Nel's playing record
*Born 15 July 1977, Germiston, Transvaal
*Bowling style Right-arm fast *Tests 34
*Test debut v Zimbabwe at Harare, September 2001
*Test wickets 119
*Bowling average 31.22
*Best figures 10 for 88 v West Indies at Barbados, 21-24 April 2005
*Test runs 330
*Batting average 10.31
Nel's disciplinary lows
*May 2002: Fined, along with four team-mates and the team physio, for allegedly smoking marijuana in their Antigua hotel room while on tour in the West Indies, a charge he denied.
*April 2003: Sent home from the South Africa A tour to Australia and banned for six matches after being arrested but not charged in Tasmania on suspicion of drink-driving.
*December 2003: Fined half his match fee for sticking out his tongue at Chris Gayle after dismissing him in the first Test in Johannesburg.
*April 2008: Hit with a six-point ECB penalty for using obscene language and throwing the ball in dangerous manner (the ball hit Steve Stubbings) while playing for Essex against Derbyshire at Derby.
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