Anrich Nortje was looking at the speed gun. He probably saw it clock a delivery at 152 kph (95 mph), which is almost double the speed of the average springbok - not the rugby-playing type - and quicker than any other non-winged creature on earth. He would have been quietly chuffed even as he told himself not to get too carried away by the numbers on the screen and stay focused on the feeling of the ball leaving his hand.
"When the rhythm is there sometimes it feels like it is a lot slower but the speed gun says something different and sometimes it feels faster and the speed gun says it is slower. It is something I notice but I don't really pay too much attention to it," Nortje said after South Africa's emphatic innings-and-12-run win at Lord's.
For the rest of us, it's almost impossible not to pay attention to pace when Nortje is sending balls down at 145kph-plus consistently. Many of them are aimed at the batters' noses, whizzing past with a whisper of danger. Often what comes next is a delivery that zones in on the toes. By mixing up his lengths, Nortje can create something of a time lapse and the innings seems to go by a lot quicker, with batters hurried into shots they otherwise wouldn't play.
The best example of that was Jonny Bairstow in the second innings, when he was drawn into driving at a 147kph ball that he could have left, and nicked off. It was the second time Nortje dismissed Bairstow in the match, after bowling him through the gate in the first innings. After the summer Bairstow has had, he is England's most important wicket and when South Africa claimed it, it sent them into wild celebrations that someone will make memes out of. In the second innings Nortje brought out a blood-vessel-bursting chainsaw that made Dale Steyn's look tame. He later said he was "just very happy with the way things happened," an understatement, if there ever was one, but a fair reflection of the state of mind of a player who has been through the challenges he has.
Nortje spent six of the last nine months on the sidelines with a mystery hip and back injury that he picked up at the T20 World Cup, which ruled him out of the 2021-22 summer and caused him discomfort almost every time he bowled. He eventually returned to action at the IPL and had not played any red-ball cricket in more than a year before the Lord's Test, not even the warm-up match against the Lions in Canterbury last week. There must have been times when Nortje wondered whether he would play Test cricket again and though he said he was joking when he revealed he is able to bowl quickly thanks to "lots of pain medication," it's unlikely to be that far from the truth.
Now that he is back, Nortje has a very specific role in a line-up that has changed from the one he made his debut in. It has more pace, in general (with the retirement of Vernon Philander, the return of Lungi Ngidi and the emergence of Marco Jansen) and more options. In that, Nortje's job is, "to try and bring some energy," he explained. "My job is to try and bowl quick, to try to bring energy and momentum for the team. It is generally later on in the day when it happens."
At Lord's, Nortje was used as the second-change bowler - something he has only done three times previously in his career - coming on after Kagiso Rabada, Ngidi and Jansen. In other conditions he may be called on earlier but in England, where there is more assistance for seamers from both overhead and underfoot conditions, it makes sense to open with Rabada and Ngidi and use the express duo of Jansen and Nortje when the ball might be swinging less but they can still rush batters with pace.
That means Nortje could find himself bowling more to the middle and lower order but he is cautious not to see that as an invitation to bounce them out, which was England's tactic to the South African tail. "It might happen where they expect another bouncer so the follow up ball is important most of the time. It is very important to try and take the feet away for a short period of time but you still have to bowl a proper ball the next ball. Sometimes we tend to bowl a half-volley the next ball because we want to try and get it full so the guy nicks off," he said. "It is trying to stick to the basics for as long as you can. One short ball and then back to the basics."
Most of the deliveries Nortje bowled at Lord's were just short of a good length (ESPNcricifo's ball-by-ball data calculated 43 deliveries in that area out of the 120 Nortje delivered) and he took four of his six wickets with good-length balls. Nortje was also South Africa's most expensive bowler, with boundaries coming off anything he offered that was too wide, and to Stuart Broad, too short. That's something he is working on with the help of his captain. "Sometimes you think you've bowled the right ball but it goes to the boundary. Then you have your captain in your ear saying 'it's a good ball, so keep going, keep going,' and I think that helped me at stages," he said.
Dean Elgar has been credited with bringing the best out of his resources before - like when he gave Rabada a talking to after the first day of the Boxing Day Test against India last summer that ended with him finishing that match with seven wickets and the series as the leading bowler. He is doing the same with Nortje now, as he encourages him to keep an eye on the speed gun because the team needs the gas.
"Dean is quite straight forward. If he thinks you're not playing your A-game, he'll tell you and the whole team respects that. We need that. You need someone to tell you and not to beat around the bush," Nortje said. "He encourages me to bring energy and bowl quick. He encourages me to be myself and to try to express myself as a bowler. I am really enjoying having him as a captain and it is nice to have that honesty from a captain as well."