There were a couple of familiar names in the South African contingent of the IPL auction in December: Colin Ingram is an increasingly sought-after T20 freelancer, while Heinrich Klaasen is also no stranger to the IPL, and Hardus Viljoen is a County regular. But not as many will have heard of the fourth South African picked up by Kolkata Knight Riders earlier this week.
Anrich Nortje, a 25-year-old fast bowler from Uitenhage in the Eastern Cape, turned enough heads in three Mzansi Super League games to pop up on the IPL radar. Playing for the Cape Town Blitz, Nortje caught the attention of KKR coach Jacques Kallis, himself a Cape Town local, scoring a INR 20 lakh (R400,000) contract, despite currently being sidelined by minor surgery on his ankle.
"I didn't really expect to get picked up, but I thought, well, definitely give it a shot. When I get on the shortlist I was quite happy. I was in Struisbaai, [a picturesque coastal town of a few thousand people] in the Western Cape, just in a shopping centre when someone phoned me and I heard," Nortje explained. "I was busy getting meat for a braai that night."
While he has been a cricketer - and bowled fast - since childhood, Nortje's recent rise has been rapid. Having made his first class debut in 2013, and his franchise debut in 2016, in the 2017-18 season he averaged a modest 35 with the ball in the four-day domestic competition for Warriors but, he says, he "changed one or two things during the winter, and just sort of clicked".
Nortje was selected for South Africa A's tour of India in August, playing in two matches and dismissing Prithvi Shaw and Hanuma Vihari - for 148 - in the second unofficial Test against India A. The tour meant Nortje went into the 2018-19 domestic season match-fit and bowling with rhythm, and in five first class games for Warriors he picked up 24 wickets at 21.04, including figures of 5 for 51 and 6 for 66 in back-to-back games against Knights.
"It started with getting selected for SA A, and then just bowling straight through the winter. I had a lot of cricket, a lot of prep, a lot of bowling. It's been very busy and very exciting. Getting selected for the MSL was also a great thing. It got people looking my way a little bit. It would have been nice to play a little more, but it was still a great opportunity."
Even before the Mzansi Super League kicked off, word of Nortje's pace started to get around. "Just watching Nortje bowling, he bowled at the speed of lightning, that was pretty scary," said Dawid Malan after one of the warm-ups. While those games obviously weren't televised, it was reported that Nortje touched 150km/h. "He's got raw pace," his team-mate Dale Steyn summed it up, simply. Blitz coach Ashwell Prince went as far as saying: "I have no doubt he will go on to play successfully at Test match level."
"I was also a little bit surprised to see the speeds," admitted Nortje. "I did change one or two things and I could feel it's a little bit quicker, and there's a little bit more power at the crease. But to see the pace was nice."
"I was just in a shopping centre when someone phoned me and I heard. I was busy getting meat for a braai that night"
"I definitely think there was one four-day game at Centurion, that I could definitely feel it was quicker. Quicker than what I bowled at MSL. But that was just one spell that I bowled. This season, compared to previous seasons, has definitely been the quickest."
In that Centurion game, Nortje collected the wickets of Aiden Markram and Farhaan Behardien on his way to 4 for 67. He knocked over big names in the MSL as well, dismissing Hashim Amla and Temba Bavuma (first ball) on his way to 4 for 32 against Durban Heat, and then cut through Jozi Stars with 3 for 30. While he was just doing what he had been doing domestically all season, this was televised. The exposure clearly helped.
"Without that [Mzansi], I wouldn't have been picked up. It was my first big T20 tournament, I'd like to get more exposure from here on, and IPL would definitely help that."
Nortje credited the various coaches and trainers who have helped to shape his career thus far, including age-group coach Andre du Plessis, provincial coach Piet Botha, his Warriors fitness trainer and Warriors coach Rivash Gobind, who "sort of just freed us up, the whole team. Those guys really had an influence on me getting to where I am at this stage".
While Nortje's MSL adventure was cut short by bone fragments in his left ankle that required surgery and put him out of cricket until the new year, with an IPL contract and plenty of buzz around him, he's actually in a pretty good place right now.
"I'm just excited to be playing [in the IPL]. If I can get a game, that would probably be the most exciting thing for me. It doesn't really bother me who I'm bowling to or whatever. I just want to play and just do my thing."
Playing for the Proteas is an obvious goal for Nortje, but even before that he will have a chance to bowl at some of the best players in the world at the IPL. Including, perhaps, the greatest of them all.
"Bowling to Virat? Wow, I don't know," he laughs. "He's an unbelievable player. I'll have to assess it on the day, assess the wicket, and just go according to the plan of what the coach and the team wants."
"I'd definitely like to play for the Proteas. I'd play any time, any format, it doesn't matter what it is. I just want to get into the green and gold and play for South Africa."