Walter: Nortje not 'very far away' from returning to his best

Anrich Nortje claimed the key wicket of Jos Buttler AFP/Getty Images

Anrich Nortje is not "very far away," from being back to his best, according to South Africa's white-ball coach Rob Walter, who is not too disheartened with the fast bowler's figures since returning from a six-month absence caused by a stress fracture.

Nortje did not play a match between September 2023 and March 2024 - missing the ODI World Cup and the full South African home summer as a result - and opted out of a central contract for this year. Since returning to action, he has played 11 T20 games across the CSA T20, the IPL and - most recently - a series against West Indies, bowling 40 overs to pick up nine wickets for 449 runs. He has an overall economy rate of 11.22, and went at a rate of more than 12 runs an over in his two T20Is, but Walter remains confident in his ability ahead of the T20 World Cup.

"They've been tough conditions for a fast bowler and [Nortje was] coming up against a side who were pretty brutal if you were off the mark. He probably experienced the exact same thing having come off a break into his first four games at the IPL. So he probably landed himself in a perfect storm, which in many ways can harden you and get you even more ready," Walter told a press conference on Tuesday. "I still don't believe he's very far away. A world-class performer finds a way and I don't doubt that he will as well."

Nortje was chosen in South Africa's T20 World Cup squad ahead of Lungi Ngidi, who sat out the IPL with a lower back concern but returned during the CSA T20 Challenge, where he took eight wickets in eight matches at an average of 19.37 and conceded at 8.30 runs to the over.

Despite Ngidi's wide-range of slower-ball variations, when the T20 World Cup squad was announced, Walter explained he opted for Nortje for raw pace, and he stands by that choice. "The ideal is to use every person's x-factor to the best of our ability. His x-factor is his pace so we are definitely always looking to use that 150-plus speed that he has," Walter said.

In the two matches Nortje played against West Indies, he reached above 150kph with some deliveries - and those were often dispatched as quickly as they arrived - but also took pace off, going down to 110kph. "He is more than that (pace), really, and he has developed a good set of skills from a slower ball point of view," Walter said. " So I do believe he can bowl on different surfaces and in different positions of the game. But his main job is to strike, really, and break the game open, and then finish it, and then close it up."

For slower balls, South Africa will also look to Ottneil Baartman, SA20's second-highest wicket-taker this season, who made his debut against West Indies. Baartman took 3 for 26 in his first international and dismissed batters with the new and old ball but picked up a lower-limb injury that forced him out of the next two matches but has returned to training.

"Ottneil bowled yesterday", Walter said. "He performed excellently well, and continues to perform excellently well so I'm very excited by what Ottneil has brought to the side. He is a very simple and highly talented and skilled individual who sort of slides under the radar in terms of the job that he's doing. He bowls in the toughest parts of the game and finds a way to get it done well."

Tabraiz Shamsi, who did not play in the West Indies series and also suffered a niggle, has also been in the nets and that is all the practice South Africa will get. Their official warm-up match, scheduled for Wednesday in Florida, has been cancelled for logistical reasons.

"With the IPL unfolding the way it was, as well as this tour in the West Indies, it would have meant that we played the 24th, 25th, 26th, traveled on the 27th, and then played on the 29th, being unsure as to who was going to arrive when from the IPL. So it just wasn't tenable for us to play a game," Walter said. "We would have loved to have had one warm-up game; it's not like we've been short of playing."

Three South Africans - Heinrich Klaasen, Aiden Markram and Marco Jansen - were involved in the IPL final on Sunday while one other, Keshav Maharaj, was part of the Rajasthan Royals squad that played the Eliminator last Friday. South Africa will now hold intra-squad scenario training before traveling to New York for their first match against Sri Lanka on June 3.