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Duanne Olivier on South Africa comeback: 'I think my nerves will be shot through the roof'

Kolpak-returnee quick opens up on his time away from the national team and the thrill of potentially making the XI against India

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
23-Dec-2021
Duanne Olivier continued his wicket-taking form, South Africa v Pakistan, 2nd Test, Cape Town, 1st day, January 3, 2018

'For me, it's probably the biggest series I will play so, if selected, there will be those pressures' - Duanne Olivier  •  AFP

Duanne Olivier was so confident he would not play for South Africa again that when he signed a Kolpak deal in 2019, he framed his Test cap. So, what happens if baggy green No. 94 is needed later this week?
"I am going to have to ask if I can get a new one. Otherwise I need to break the frame," Olivier said, from South Africa's bio-bubble in Centurion three days before the Boxing Day Test against India, which should mark Olivier's comeback.
Although he is still bashful about his chances of being in the starting XI, with Anrich Nortje out through injury and Olivier leading the first-class wicket-charts, he is all but certain to play.
When, and it is when and not if, he does, Olivier is going to be battling butterflies, just like he always does. "I am a nervous person when it comes to playing. Wherever I play I am always nervous. If it's my first over, I am very nervous," he said. "I'll have different feeling this time. will be different feelings. Maybe it might be similar to a debut because I haven't played for three years. It will be interesting to see what the nerves will be like but I'm sure, if I am selected to play, I think my nerves will be shot through the roof."
Olivier will partly be worried about performance in a big series against a team that is "not No. 1 for no reason," he reminded. "It's massive series. They (India) haven't won here, so they want to come and win here and for us, we don't want that to happen."
And he will partly be concerned about what South Africans still bitter from his decision to leave think. "I know people will have mixed feelings about it, but at the end of the day, it's okay. You handle that and you deal with those pressures or the criticism that comes with that."
But the one thing he does not have to worry about are the feeling of his team-mates, some old, many new, who are more than happy to have him.
"The UK helped me a lot in perfecting that fuller length that every bowler wants to bowl. For me, it was quite difficult because it can come across floaty and I wasn't that consistent."
Olivier on how his Kolpak stint aided his transformation as a cricketer
Earlier in the week, South Africa Test captain Dean Elgar said he's be happy to have anyone who is in form, in the squad. "I want our best opportunity to win matches and win series, and in order for that, you need to make tough calls on bringing people back, for instance. I was very keen to have him back," Elgar said. "There's no bad feelings about what's happened in the past. I want to win cricket matches for South Africa, I want to win series for South Africa, and I'm pretty sure I've got 100% backing when it comes to that in our change room. It's nice to have him back."
Except that it's not exactly the same Olivier who has returned. "You can see that he's a different cricketer to what he was the first time he played for us," Elgar said. And that's a good thing. "Obviously with his trip away from South Africa, he's learnt a lot, he's played a lot of cricket in the UK, so he's bringing a lot of knowledge and experience back into the change room, which is something that we need at the moment."
Olivier himself feels like someone else, as a person and a cricketer. "Firstly, I am more mature and a bit more grown up," he said. "And from a cricketing point of view, I do genuinely believe I am different. The UK helped me a lot in perfecting that fuller length that every bowler wants to bowl. For me, it was quite difficult because it can come across floaty and I wasn't that consistent. I am still working on it and I am not going to get it right every single time but the three years I spend in the UK helped me immensely, just the way I approach my game. I can still go short if I want to, but at the end of the day, the games dictates that. People thought I only bowl short and fair enough, I did that but now I feel like I have a different element to my game."
A fuller length has long been talked about as the key to success on the Highveld, where two of the three Tests will be played, and especially at the Wanderers, Olivier's new home ground, albeit that the temptation is to bowl short. But Olivier has seen for himself that fuller is better. In adjusting his lengths, he has been rewarded and taken 24 of his 28 wickets this summer at the Wanderers, including both five-fors. He hasn't yet played at SuperSport Park, the venue of the first Tests, but it will be similarly seamer-friendly, with the promise that someone will take the series lead.
"It looked like there was a bit of grass, green grass on it and I assume they will probably take a little bit off. I reckon probably a touch slow on day one but it's always a wicket that speeds up and the game moves forward," Olivier said. "And there has always been a result. I don't know when last a Test match, even a four-day game, there was a draw."
The last drawn Test in Centurion was in 2009, against England, and there have only been three drawn Tests at the venue in 26 matches, all against the same opposition. South Africa have beaten India both times they played them at this venue and will hope history repeats itself as they seek to rebuild as a Test outfit, gain points on the World Test Championship table and begin to turn the page over two years of upheaval - two years Olivier missed.
But he did not entirely escape the goings-on in this cricketing landscape and he is well aware of the importance of this contest in the broader context of South African cricket. "If we come out on top, it will mean a lot for South Africa in general, for Cricket South Africa and for players, because it's like a make-or-break series for players," he said. "If you do well against a top team in the world, it says something.
"For me, it's probably the biggest series I will play so, if selected, there will be those pressures. We're playing against world class players but at the same time, it's an exciting challenge. Like, I'll need to bowl to (Virat) Kohli. It will be tough, but it's exciting. We'll be bowling to probably the top four batters in the world. It's like making a statement to them. We are here to compete. We are not just going to roll over. For me, that's very important: throwing the first punch, to know that you are here, you are present."
Perhaps as long as that punch doesn't have to be through the glass frame to retrieve his Test cap.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent