Andre "Gunther" Nel: "He lives in the mountains and doesn't get enough oxygen to the brain" © Getty Images

Nightmare on Elm Street terrorised cinema-goers across the world in the eighties. But in real life Freddie Kruger, or rather the actor who played him Robert Englund, is surprisingly nice, always smiling for photographs and obliging with autographs.

Cricket has its own villain, albeit a pantomime one. Yet his on-camera persona - snarling, sledging, slavering - is also a world away from his true identity: natural charm personified.

Yet that's because when you see him steaming in for South Africa and following through with some choice words, you're not seeing Andre Nel. You're seeing Gunther.

"It's my second personality," smiles Nel, who's highly relaxed following a nap in the Essex changing room during their match with Northamptonshire. "Gunther is a guy who lives in the mountains and doesn't get enough oxygen to the brain and that makes him crazy.

"It's a nice German name," he adds, and one bestowed by one of the technical team three years ago. After Shaun Pollock wrote it on his run-up against Bangladesh, he went on to take 6 for 43, it stuck. "It's white-line syndrome. When I walk on the cricket field I get all worked up and quite aggressive."

In fact, it's best not to wind him up. "The more people abuse me the more I get fired up. In one way I enjoy it when people abuse me. If you give it out you're going to take it so I expect I'm getting abuse."

He means good-natured abuse, of course, not racism. The latest incident of which was at Surrey earlier this week when a spectator called out offensive things. "It's uncalled for. I can take it because it can happen everywhere but there's no reason to get abuse from someone who doesn't even know what the word properly means."

But when the audience's perception is filtered through a lens why not try to act a little less? "I think they see on TV I'm a big bully and a real idiot and they really don't know me as a person. People are going to make their own mind up about you. I can't really worry what people think about me."

Away from the pitch he is calm and polite. "I'm a plain and simple Afrikaans boy who grew up in a small town. I was brought up well. My dad brought me up to be competitive and do your best in any situation. That's the way I do most of things. Live life to the fullest and no regrets."

He had a strict upbringing in Boksburg, a town in eastern Gauteng, but admits: "I was a naughty little boy at school. I was very naughty. [The worst thing was] when I was 13 or 14 throwing stones into a guy's pool. My dad was not pleased. I got the biggest hiding ever. There's probably a lot more I've done that I can't remember."

He was discovered by Ray Jennings, his former provincial and national coach. "He's like my second father." That figures; both have had their crazy moments - Jennings knocked Graeme Smith out while practising slip catches, and made his players run a lap for every no-ball. "He fired me up and pressed the right buttons to be the best bowler. I'm really grateful to him."

"I was a naughty little boy at school, very naughty" © Getty Images

Nel had further growing up to do, though. There was a time when Gunther was off the pitch, too. He was caught smoking dope with some colleagues in 2001, drink-driving in 2003. It's only in the last three or four years that he's calmed down.

A sobering serious back injury ironically helped and now the indiscretions seem a thing of the past. "Now I can control what I'm doing, using the aggression in better ways. The nice thing is the captain, Graeme, backs me to be that way because he wants me to use the aggression and bring energy to the side. It lifts the side up."

Rugby didn't fire him up in the same way, even though he was playing both sports professionally when his real dad told him to make a decision. He chose cricket - although he only took up the game at 14 and only became a fast bowler when he bulked out at 17 - because it offered him the chance of playing for South Africa. "Playing for your country is any child's dream." Plus, he had grown too big to be fly half.

He knows it's a huge privilege to represent his nation, but he rarely watches the highlights, with the gurning, the gesticulations. "I didn't even know I pulled those faces!" He gets embarrassed when he's recognised, though he happily signs autographs. "They're the people who support you. It doesn't cost you anything to be nice and humble."

That's probably why few know he's a qualified accountant, although he couldn't now see himself in an office. (Could you? "Hello, Gunther here.") But that's more because his boredom threshold is low.

He's a bundle of nervous energy - and this manifests in frequent dressing room pranks. "I enjoy playing cricket but find it unbelievably boring to watch. Most guys playing find it boring. My mind's very active. I get up to no good most of the time. [He laughs really naughtily] You've got to be active and mess around. A bit of wrestling ... and mess around a bit more."

You can't deny he just loves the game - he stayed to chat about cricket long after the interview was over - even if he thinks there's too much being played. "Money is always going to overpower the players anyway. You have to get on with it."

He also has a fear that his hero Allan Donald's knowledge won't be used by the South Africa board. "It would be stupid and sad not to," he says, worrying that Donald will make his bowling coach role with England more permanent. "It would be a big loss to South Africa. I grew up looking and watching him and Polly [Pollock]. I don't have the best action compared to them, but the same kind of thought pattern."

And of course he wants to keep playing as much as he can for South Africa , even at 33 in the next World Cup. And so do the opposition, as "I'm the first one in the other dressing room with a beer."

Ultimately, he knows where to draw the line. "When it's finished, I'm probably the easiest person to get along with, the softest person off the field ever."

Jenny Thompson is assistant editor of Cricinfo