'I want to make a big difference off the field because of all the stupid things I have done'

Former South Africa fast bowler Andre Nel reflects on his wild-child days, the country's Kolpak record, and his life now as the Essex assistant coach

"It's a nice thing, being an ex-player and bumping my head a lot, knowing you can recognise those situations, and hopefully you can guide young players"  •  Getty Images

"It's a nice thing, being an ex-player and bumping my head a lot, knowing you can recognise those situations, and hopefully you can guide young players"  •  Getty Images

The one-time wild man of South African fast bowling, Andre Nel is more of a gentle giant as a coach. He talked to us about Kolpaks, career highlights, and the whereabouts of "Gunther".
You enjoyed a couple of spells as a player at Essex in the 2000s, and now find yourself back as assistant coach. How did that come about?
I went for an interview and it went really well, and when I got the job I was really excited to come back. I always enjoyed playing here and the people make you feel really welcome; it's a really family-orientated club. I thought it was a really good opportunity to come and help Essex, to help "Mags" [Essex head coach Anthony McGrath] and get Essex to win another championship.
Tell us about your route into coaching after retirement.
I was head coach at [South African provincial team] Easterns, and assistant coach and bowling coach at the national academy. I also did a bit of helping guys individually, and then this opportunity came along. I'm passionate about being a bowling coach. This is a good opportunity for me to hopefully help some young bowlers to be really good and play for England.
What about your ambitions - presumably you would love to work with South Africa at some stage?
It would be great to get involved at the highest level. You start as a player and you want to play at the highest level. Of course there's a lot of stepping stones, you've still got to learn lots - but if the opportunity comes up to coach South Africa or any country, as a bowling coach, it would be a great privilege. You never know, but we'll see where the challenge takes me.
South Africa has a great record of exporting players and coaches to other countries. Why do you think that is?
I think there's a lot of talent. It's a difficult country sometimes to live in, but I think there's a lot of talent. If unfortunately you can't play or coach at the highest level, you have to consider opportunities [elsewhere] to improve your skill and helping other countries to do well. If those opportunities come up, you have to accept them to advance your career.
The current situation in England, with the Kolpak ruling, is a particularly sensitive one; Duanne Olivier recently became the 43rd South African to put his international career on hold in order to join a county. You played as a Kolpak signing yourself, for Surrey. How do you see things now?
It's a difficult one. A lot of people always ask about the Kolpak issue. I think you have to weigh up the opportunity of playing for your country - that's why Duanne Olivier's decision was quite surprising, because he had actually just got into the side, doing really well, and had the chance for a really good career. So it was a strange decision, but he has his reasons for it and no one can really judge him. Hopefully he goes and does well for his county.
It is a worrying factor for South Africa that so many players want to leave and play elsewhere, but I think there's ways and means that South Africa can possibly give guys better opportunities to play provincial cricket or franchise cricket. But they can't be upset with guys taking the chance to play at the higher level.
"Guys are finding ways and means to play at the highest level. If that's signing Kolpak, they can't be judged"
In your case, you had represented South Africa for several years, playing more than 100 times, before going down that road.
It's just my nature, I always wanted to play for my country. It was an honour and privilege to represent my country in a World Cup, and take so many wickets. I'm still proud of being an ex-South Africa player, I always will be, it'll never go away. Yes, I did sign Kolpak and play for different counties, but I always gave everything I could. That's the way people remember me. Yes, I was aggressive, yes, I did do strange things on the field, but I did everything I could to play the best I could. No one could ever doubt that.
There has been quite a drain in recent years - Olivier, Morne Morkel, Kyle Abbott, Simon Harmer at Essex. Not just former internationals but players still being considered for selection. Is that a worry for the South African game?
It's a tricky one. I don't want to comment on the reasons why it's happening; I try and stay away from that. We know it's a quota issue and that's part of our country, and people have to accept it. But then people must also understand guys will look for opportunities somewhere else - that's just the nature of the beast in South Africa. Guys are finding ways and means to play at the highest level. If that's signing Kolpak, guys can't be judged.
Do people back home understand the quota rules and the importance of transformation?
It's part of our country, that's never going to change. If you're fit enough, strong enough and you've done everything you can to be the best and you don't get picked, at least you can walk away with dignity. That's all you can try and do. Thankfully there are opportunities, in different counties. You can try and grab it and make the best of it.
Luckily South Africa's production line of talent, particularly when it comes to pace bowlers, seems in good order, with players like Anrich Nortje and Lutho Sipamla making their debuts in recent weeks.
It is exciting to see there's always guys coming through. At some stage that is going to get less, and then they have to start rebuilding again. The big thing is now a lot of guys in the South Africa side at the moment are at the stage where their careers could be coming to an end - guys like Faf du Plessis, Dale Steyn. I think there's going to be a big exodus after the World Cup. Then we'll have to give these youngsters a chance and see if they can swim. Hopefully they can. There'll always be some decent players - we just have to make sure we nurture them and look after them, make sure they're equipped and mentally prepared for the big challenges international cricket brings.
So you see a transition period for South Africa coming up?
In my gut I feel it could be. There's some really good players around but sometimes people forget the mental application you have to have when you step up to play international cricket. There's more pressures. I think that's where South Africa are sometimes poor - we don't equip guys enough mentally with being ready for those big challenges. Boys jump from nothing to that big stage, and it is sometimes a big adjustment. But I think we'll be fine - we've got really good players, and I think South Africa will be all right after some of the guys retire.
You've mentioned your passion for bowling, and as a player you were known for getting very animated on the field, driven by your wild-man alter ego "Gunther". What is he up to these days?
No, no, after I retired, he's gone. It was actually quite a nice thing, one of the fun things in the South African side they came up with. The press did the work for me, saying "Gunther's coming out." I just had to concentrate on bowling. I've done a lot of Ironmen [long-distance triathlons] - five full ones and eight half Ironmen. So when I start suffering, I think Gunther comes out and shouts at me, to push through the pain. I've never really been an aggressive guy. Only when I played for my country, I got excited. It was my job and that was the best me, the best player.
A full Ironman sounds pretty demanding - how did you get into that?
I got dared in 2013 to do my first Ironman for charity, for the Ironman 4 the Kidz foundation. I'll never forget, all my best mates, when I said I'm considering doing an Ironman, they all started laughing at me. I'm not really built for triathlon - I'm a big man. And they laughed at me, so I said, "I'll show you guys." I always want to prove a point, it's just my nature. I committed to it, trained my bum off, did my first one in 2013, and the bug's bitten.
I became an ambassador for the foundation, so I do a few events, speaking. It's a really good charity to be involved with. I'm hoping to do some races in Europe; I've got to wait for my bike to get here, but I'm starting to train again. It gives me a bit more purpose. I love the coaching, but it's nice to challenge myself physically and mentally.
How long does one take? Sounds like more hard work than a day in the field.
The pros do it in eight and a half hours, so they're quite quick. My best time is 14 hours 15 minutes, but you've got about 17 hours to finish it. So I'm not a world beater, but at the end of the day, as long as I can do it and I can raise as much money for my foundation - the nice thing is, I'm out there for so long, they get quite good mileage out of me! It's a good platform for the charity. I'm not there to win the race, just to compete. It's a personal challenge. I'm a decent swimmer, I'm a decent cyclist. Running, I'll always battle. The moment you come into a space when you know how much pain your body has taken and how much you can still do, that's half the battle won. Now I'm starting to enjoy it. It keeps me sane. If I'm bored, I'll go and train instead of getting into trouble.
"I think there's going to be a big exodus after the World Cup, then we'll have to give these youngsters a chance and see if they can swim"
Speaking of which, you were famous for getting into disciplinary scrapes on and off the field. Have you mellowed with age?
I'm a quiet guy now. I know how important it is to build good relationships with players. With all my stupid experiences that I have had, I can recognise those situations and advise the younger kids that possibly this is the way it could go. I want to make a big difference off the field because of all the stupid things I have done. I can hopefully assist guys not to do the same things.
What is it that leads young players into trouble?
The lifestyle - you have loads of money, can do what you want. You almost think you're better than most people, and it takes you time to realise it's not the be-all and end-all. If you can teach guys early that you're not better than anyone else, you're exactly the same and [your playing career] can be taken away quite quickly from you, then you can make a big difference to a youngster's life. It's a nice thing, being an ex-player and bumping my head a lot, knowing you can recognise those situations, you see it straight away and hopefully you can guide them. You might not do it with everybody, but if I can save two guys and lose one, I'm winning.
You took more than 100 wickets for South Africa in both Test and ODI cricket. Looking back now, what are your favourite memories?
I always remember the parts I played with the bat, strangely enough! I'll never forget, we played a one-day match in Durban against New Zealand. I think we needed eight runs [11] in the last over and somehow I got us past the line, batting No. 10 with Mark Boucher. That was probably one of my most memorable things, and of course the ten wickets in the Test match in the West Indies, winning us the match. The five-for against England at Centurion, just coming back after doing a stupid thing again. There are small things that stand out. I'm really happy with how my career went. Yes, you always have the stupidness - I don't think if I were to act like that now, I would play a lot of Test matches.
At least you could blame Gunther when it came to pulling faces, etc. Is there no room for that sort of eccentricity nowadays?
The rules have changed a lot. I think it's sort of taken characters out of the game and sometimes that's what people want, they want characters. With the rule changes, you get a lot of stereotyped people, guys just going through the motions. Yes, there's a lot more people watching, it's a lot more marketable for kids, but it's also nice to have characters and people love a bit of that - you see Andrew Flintoff, what he's done away from cricket as well as being an amazing character on the field. I think that's the bit you're starting to lose nowadays.
Were you one for sledging?
I think I did everything possible to intimidate batters. It probably never worked, but when I bowled I was aggressive and said a few words and got myself worked up. I knew that was the frame of mind I had to be in to perform my best. I didn't have the best action, I had decent skill, but I knew if I was in the right frame of mind, I'm ten times a more effective and dangerous bowler. I tried to make sure I got myself into that frame of mind. Sometimes I looked stupid, but I wanted to be the best for my team.
Some of the antics might have distracted people from your ability. You had an excellent record of dismissing Brian Lara, for instance.
I was fortunate. Very proud of that. If I'm correct, I took him out nine times [eight] in 11 innings, or close to that. I had a really good record against him. Sometimes the conditions helped, and I also got him out a lot of times on 99 or 100. He was pretty cool about it. At the World Cup in 2007, he signed a shirt for me, "To Nelly: give me a break." That's one of my most favourite things. There's ten times better bowlers than me who also had really good records against him, but to know that I got some of the best batters out more often than not, I'm very proud of that.
Do you still have the shirt?
It's in my bar in Pretoria. There's a shirt of Glenn McGrath also, saying "I love your passion." Those small things mean the world to me.
"I knew if I was in the right frame of mind, I'm ten times a more effective and dangerous bowler. Sometimes I looked stupid, but I wanted to be the best for my team"
Before we let you go, what are your predictions for the World Cup?
It's going to be difficult. It depends on the conditions. A lot of teams are in contention. I think if guys figure out the conditions quite quickly, bowl the right lengths, and then have a bit of luck - you need a bit of luck in a World Cup. The ball might not swing as much. We've been training with the white Kookaburra and it doesn't swing as much - that was very surprising to me. If the ball isn't swinging, what to do?
I hope South Africa win it, I know it's probably biased, it would be nice to get the choker's tag off our backs eventually…
Do you think that label is justified?
It is what it is, and people always try and throw it in to make us feel bad about ourselves. I think it's just one of those things. We accept it and get on with it. We haven't played really good cricket in a World Cup consistently, and that's where we let ourselves down. We always have a really bad game at a crucial stage of the tournament - in 2007 we had to beat England in Barbados to get through to the playoffs. In the World Cup in New Zealand also we played poorly and just snuck through again. If we can play consistent cricket and our big players stand up… but we mustn't depend heavily on our big players, all the small parts have to contribute to the system to make you win a World Cup.
My small tip is India and England - they're the two favourites. Home conditions [for England] and India are a really good, balanced side, they could be really dangerous. And also funnily enough, the Pakistanis always go well in England, they always find a way to do well - they could be an outsider. You can't ever write the Australians off. They always seem to peak at the right times at the World Cup. So it'll be interesting to see, but I'll probably go with India, England… and hopefully South Africa!

Alan Gardner is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo. @alanroderick