Nortje’s unavailability hampers South Africa in their strongest suit

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22 Dec 2021 | 02:55 PM
authorShubh Aggarwal

Nortje’s unavailability hampers South Africa in their strongest suit

Anrich Nortje's injury comes as a hammer blow for South Africa in the one department they were looking to match India

Everything is going haywire in South Africa cricket. Be it the administration, the various revelations in the SJN hearings, multiple international series facing postponements at the eleventh hour, missing out on a T20 World Cup semifinal on net run-rate. Their Test batting has been in shambles. Since 2018, their batting average in Test cricket has only been better than the lower ranked sides - Ireland, West Indies, Afghanistan and Zimbabwe. Whether off the field or on it, South African cricket has been treading muddied waters for a while. 

All these factors have affected their chances, especially in competitions involving top-ranked sides. Consequently, the touring Indian contingent stand their best chance to win their first series in the Rainbow nation. It has never happened before in the 29-year old Test history between the two nations but the domino effect in South Africa cricket defies history. 

On cricketing logic, South Africa hold the short end of the stick in most departments when compared to India. Their low batting average is a consequence of bowler-friendly home conditions but they are still more fragile than their counterparts. Add to that the unavailability of Quinton de Kock for at least one Test, their highest run-scorer in Tests since 2019. 

However, one aspect where the Proteas were expected to match India was on the pace bowling front. In a country where the seamers pick a wicket every 49.5 deliveries - the best for a host nation since 2018, the series was seen as a cathartic display of hostile pace bowling from both sides. South Africa were bolstered by the return of Duanne Olivier. But prolonged happiness is now a myth in South Africa cricket. A good news is inevitably followed by a bad one. In this case, they lost Anrich Nortje due a persistent hip injury. 

It is a blow to their depth when put against that of India. They have the promising talent of Marco Jansen, Glenton Stuurman in their quiver but none of them have played Test cricket yet. In only 12 Tests, Nortje has become one of the most breathtaking pace machines of the present generation. He is South Africa’s highest wicket-taker in 2021, snapping 25 wickets in five Tests at 20.8 runs apiece. If not the spearhead of the attack, he has been sharing the burden of Kagiso Rabada in equal amount, since his debut.

What accentuates Nortje’s loss further is Kagiso Rabada’s indifferent form of late. Against top seven batters of the opposition, Nortje is on par with Rabada’s average (31.7 versus 31.4) and further ahead on balls-per-wicket - 52.2 for Notje as compared to 61 for Rabada. Filter these numbers on home games alone, Nortje is way ahead of anyone else, pouching 22 wickets. It is 13 more than the next best, the bowling all-rounder, Wiaan Mulder. 

But beyond numbers, it takes away South Africa’ bowling depth and the option to field a lethal four-man pace attack with a Test match experience under each individual’s belt. That is how they rolled when they defeated India 2-1 in 2018. They unleashed all four of their fast bowling pillars - Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel, Vernon Philander and Rabada in the first Test. When Steyn was ruled out with an injury, Lungi Ngidi replaced him to make a rather memorable debut alongside the other three names.

India will come with the same set of pacers from 2018 - Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammad Shami, Ishant Sharma alongside Mohammad Siraj, an update over Bhuvneshwar Kumar on current form. They now frame a sharper pace weaponry from the last time they toured South Africa. 

For as long as Nortje was there, the Proteas were on the same page, despite the retirements of Morkel and Philander. With him ruled out, the hosts are left with only three capped pacers in their 20-man squad, rendering their arsenal comparatively blunt. 

While South Africa had a depleted batting line-up as compared to 2018 owing to AB de Villiers and Faf du Plessis hanging their boots, the seam attack still had a nightmarish hue to it. Now that light at the end of the tunnel seems fading away. It will also be a dimmer contest from a neutral perspective given the prospects of Rabada, Nortje, Olivier and Ngidi bowling in tandem against this India side was mouth-watering. But it now stands out of the picture. To worsen the state of affairs for the home side, the injury count of their pacers is now already at a threshold.

Yes, they will have a fourth seam bowling option in Mulder. Yes, both Jansen and Stuurman have done enough in domestic and ‘A’ cricket to excite the viewers. Who knows one of them will emulate Ngidi's debut performance. But in a fairly young bowling attack whose experience stands behind Ishant Sharma’s 105 Test caps, the loss of Nortje makes life a little easier for the Indian batters before the first ball is bowled. 

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India tour of South Africa, 2021/22South AfricaIndiaAnrich NortjeKagiso RabadaDuanne OlivierLungi NgidiWiaan Mulder

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