Nortje: 'It was my decision to play when I can and am ready, rather than playing every series'

Anrich Nortje runs in to bowl in the nets ICC/Getty Images

Anrich Nortje is used to feeling the heat on the field but he's struggling with Antigua's sultry days, which crank up the heat until a thunderstorm breaks, offering sweet - if brief - relief, before the sauna steams up once more.

A day before South Africa's first Super Eight match in the men's T20 World Cup 2024, against USA, he's staying inside the team hotel, nestled by the pale sands and calm turquoise waters of Antigua's east coast.

"This place is too hot," he laughs. "There's optional training and maybe a meeting or two left, but otherwise, maybe a little bit of a swim. But yeah, it's just very hot so I'm trying to be fresh as possible for tomorrow."

Nortje has the added challenge of trying to keep a baby cool. He's been joined on this tour by his wife, Michaela, along with his daughter, Amelia, who was born exactly 13 weeks earlier, just days before Nortje left South Africa for the IPL.

In India, he faced heat of another kind, a batting paradise of a tournament where bowlers saw their economy rates balloon, none more so than Nortje. In six matches for Delhi Capitals in IPL 2024, he took seven wickets from 22 overs at an average of 42 and economy of 13.36. But he is circumspect in reflecting on the tournament, which was a major stepping stone in his return from a back injury which sidelined him for more than five months.

"It was about finding ways to get better over there," Nortje said. "And the training after the games was good, working with the coaches there at Delhi, with [bowling coach] James Hopes. I wasn't worried much about what the scoreboard did at that stage."

Nortje's cheerful and smiling demeanour is a stark contrast to his reputation as one of the world's most ferocious fast bowlers, capable of melting speed guns with deliveries in the mid-150kph range. But it kept him grounded when dealing with the latest and most severe of the string of injuries that are a result of pushing his body to the limit.

"It's definitely been tough on everyone, but the time off was great. Starting again was about getting to the right intensity. The medical team did a really good job to assure me that everything was fine with the stress fractures. I played a few games back home, trying to push as much as possible, as soon as possible, and when I was cleared to go ahead, full out."

The lower back stress fractures struck last September, just before South Africa's ODI World Cup campaign in India. Before he was ruled out of the squad, Nortje was considered one of the team's key strike weapons, as he had been in all formats since making his international debut in 2019. That year, too, he was also ruled out of the World Cup in England due to a shoulder injury.

The times between injuries have been spectacular. From June 2021 to the end of IPL 2023, Nortje took 86 wickets in 61 T20 matches at an average of 18.83, easily the best of 42 fast bowlers to take 75 or more wickets in the same period. If you include spinners, only Wanindu Hasaranga had better returns with 145 wickets at 18.03. His combination of searing pace and venomous late swing made him one of the hottest T20 properties in the world.

But this latest layoff forced Nortje to make a difficult decision, opting to forego the security of a contract with Cricket South Africa (CSA) in order to maintain control over the amount of international cricket he plays. He is keen to make it clear that he had, and has, the support of CSA.

"It was my decision. It was just to see how my body goes. I hadn't had a stress fracture since 2010 and I just had a little bit of 'nervy' in the back, so I just wanted to take the time to play when I can, play when I know I'm ready, rather than having to play every series or every whatever is coming up.

"So to make that decision on my own according to my body has been good so far. Still happy with the decision, and it's more just for me to have the calmness and to know that, if I need a break for a week, if I need a break for a month, then I can do that.

"The most immediate thing that has a question mark around would probably be the one-dayers, having a Champions Trophy coming up at the start of next year. So that would be the big question mark on how we're going to go about that. So far, things have been going good, but they're still chats that I need to have with Cricket South Africa, which I haven't had. I haven't really made a decision on what's going to happen with one-day cricket in the next few months. So we'll take that as it comes. But for now, it's obviously focusing on the World Cup and trying to get through this and bring the trophy back home."

Nortje's impact on South Africa's success in the T20 World Cup illustrates why CSA is happy to accommodate him. He is their leading wicket-taker of the tournament, and joint second overall, with nine throughout the group stage, conceding just 70 runs at an average of 10.66 and an economy rate of 4.37. The contrast to his returns in the IPL is striking.

Nortje pulled his lengths back in the US, where South Africa have played all their matches until now. In fact, 59.38% of his deliveries have been short or short-of-length balls compared to 38.64% at the IPL. Those shorter deliveries have accounted for six of his wickets at an average of 7.83.

This was not so much a preconceived plan as it was a response to pitches that offered plentiful assistance off the surface.

"So far, the wickets have been sort of try and build your best delivery, with what we've had in the last few weeks. It's obviously been low scores, but still just trying to put the ball in the right place.

"It's just a case of what's working on the day. We played three games in New York, so I suppose it was probably copy-paste for those three games, but now it's changing every game again, with different venues most of the time. So you try and find out and see what's happening in the first few overs, and then try and adapt to that. I'm sure the lengths will be different, but it's not really about going out before the game and saying, this is the length, or that's the length, just about finding it."

If South Africa make the semi-final, their unwelcome tag of never yet playing in any men's World Cup final will inevitably surface, but Nortje is not phased by any historic hoodoo.

"We do know that it is a World Cup and it is a big occasion. I don't think anyone is downplaying that. It's not just another game. Every game is a big game, but once you start worrying about the next game I think you lose a little bit of focus on what you have to do now. We're in it to win it. We're really focused and well prepped to go all the way."

And for Nortje, that means the handbrake is off.

"I don't think there's any holding back. The stress fracture, all of that from the injury, has been fully healed. I'm very happy with that, and it's just about what we need to do to win and whatever I have to do to get to that stage, I'll do it."