The nightwatchman faced 136 balls and scored runs off only nine of them ©AFP
Dom Bess hadn’t yet completed the over that had been interrupted by rain for almost four hours when the St George’s Park band brightly lurched into a chorus from one of its hardiest, hoariest standards. “Zizojika Izinto” is a hymn written in isiXhosa, one of South Africa’s 11 official languages. Its melody climbs high as a steeple and then swoops off on a wing of hope, taking all who can hear with it. For long minutes and multiple renditions, and whether you speak the language or not, you are transported to a better place.
It’s about a lot more than music: a song to sustain the spirit during the country’s long struggle for freedom, and an anthem since adopted by more than one political party in the democratic era. It tells us about ourselves and who and what we aspire to be, not least because its title translates into “turn things around”. South Africans like to believe, with not as much justification as we think we have, that nobody does that better.
And, the gods know, South Africa needed turning around in the third Test. They still do. Nelson Mandela took 27 years to get out of jail. Faf du Plessis’ team require another couple of days, but it won’t be easy. Anrich Nortje knows that better than anyone.
He took guard at 5.45pm on Friday. At 4.52pm on Saturday, he sparred at a wide one from Ben Stokes and Joe Root snared a sharp, low, dipping catch at first slip. Much happened in the 23 hours and seven minutes between those two poles, but Nortje wasn’t mulling the philosophical niceties as he countenanced his dismissal. He crumpled to a grounded knee at the crease, poked a gloved thumb through the grille of his helmet into his mouth, and stared for many seconds into the middle distance towards the dressing room from which he had come, it seemed, a thousand years earlier. If only, he might have been thinking, he could exchange the years for balls faced. He shouldn’t be so hard on himself.
Nortje was at the crease for more than three hours and faced 136 balls – and scored runs off only nine of them. His strike rate, 13.2, is the lowest in any first-class innings of 110 or more deliveries. “It’s not really about scoring runs for me,” Nortje said after stumps on Saturday. “It’s about facing a few balls … as many as possible.” He dealt with the three deliveries Bess bowled before bad light and then rain ended Friday’s play. Job done? Not by a long chalk. On Saturday, Nortje got into line with impressive willingness to blunt England’s fast bowlers, notably Mark Wood, who never strayed from the upper 140 kilometres-per-hour and touched 150. “I haven’t really had to deal with that,” he said of facing Wood’s high octane. “It gives confidence that I can do it. It’s nice to be able to do that. But it’s not the nicest thing to have to do, I’m not going to lie.” Nortje is in Wood’s league of pace. Did being on the other end of the equation engender sympathy for the batters he bowls to? “No.”
“If I get an opportunity, if I have to take a few blows, I’m willing to do that”
Nortje saw the allegedly better equipped Dean Elgar, Faf du Plessis and Rassie van der Dussen come and go. And if he wasn’t so polite he would say he could also see that he looked the best of them. “There’s a bigger battle between [frontline batters] and the bowler compared to with me,” Nortje said. “When I get a half-volley sometimes, I still block it. You can’t really compare. I’m not in the batting meeting, I can tell you that.” Nortje faced exactly 100 deliveries fewer than the player who holds the record for the longest innings by a nightwatch for South Africa. But that guy came with a reputation as a batter: Mark Boucher, for it was he, can only have been proud of Nortje as he watched from the dressing room.
Uitenhage, too, will be proud of Nortje. Some 40 kilometres from Port Elizabeth, it’s a tough town filled with tough people who build cars for a living. But they will have a soft spot for Nortje, their homeboy, who definitely started their engines. On Friday, Charl Langeveldt, South Africa’s bowling consultant, described Nortje in a television interview as “a proper Dutchman”. It’s a mild pejorative slung at first-language Afrikaans speakers, and its use in towns like Uitenhage will earn a beer bottle to the temple.
But this is different. “I’ve been called that for quite a long time; it was the first time it was on air,” Nortje said. “I take it as a compliment in the sense of trying to go out there and fight, and come hard and be aggressive, with a lot of heart. It’s something I do try and pride myself on. When conditions get tough, when its 40 degrees, I try and be the guy to run in and come hard. I try and make things happen with the ball, not really with the bat. But if I get an opportunity, if I have to take a few blows, I’m willing to do that.”
Uitenhage has given South Africa other promontory people, among them the bloodless Balthazar Johannes Vorster, the apartheid state’s third-last leader and among its most brutal monsters. More happily, Enoch Sontonga also hails from Uitenhage, and he also composed an isiXhosa hymn that is special to South Africans. Outside of St George’s Park, you will hear it more often than “Zizojika Izinto”. It’s called “Nkosi Sikele’ iAfrika”, or “God Bless Africa”, and it’s the first half of the national anthem.
Should Nortje’s effort inspire South Africa to turn things around in this match, they will be blessed indeed.