If Anrich Nortje were fit, Gerald Coetzee would have watched the World Cup with his two pet dogs in his hometown Bloemfontein. But Nortje’s stress fracture of the back, as well as an injury to Sisanda Magala, secured Coetzee a last-minute seat on the flight. A month after landing in India, he is his country’s highest wicket-taker in a single edition of the World Cup (18 wickets at 19.38), usurping the numbers of a handful of Proteas legends.
The bare bones reveal his extraordinary success but do not tell you how fast he bowled, how much bounce he extracted off dead surfaces, how much terror he induced in the eyes of the batsmen, how much he burned the batsmen with his bloodshot stare and the deathly halo of his black head-band, or the roar of joy when he gets a wicket. Afghanistan batsmen simply could not deal with his heat. First, he broke the Afghan wall of resistance, getting rid of Ibrahim Zadran with a short ball down the leg side but with so much pace and hostility that the batsman was compulsively hurried into the pull.
None of three other wicket-taking deliveries in Ahmedabad were any more exceptional, owing more to the batsmen’s indiscretion than an unplayable ball leaving him dazzled. But those wickets accrued from the sheer hostility he had ratcheted up all through the afternoon under the scorching sun. He was sweating bucketful, his shirt was drenched in sweat, he would constantly take swigs of water from the bottles sprayed around the boundary ropes. During a drinks break, he was spotted sprawling on the ground. But none of these, of course, diluted his aggression.
It starts with his head-band that covers almost his entire forehead. But it was not designed as an intimidation. “My dad used to wear a sock around his head when he would cut the grass because we sweat a lot in my family. I wear it to keep the sweat out of my face. I don’t like having my hands in my face the whole time, so it really helped with that. After that it sort of became a thing,” he had once said. There was a mullet—in the fine tradition of firebrand fast bowlers, that he chopped sometime before the World Cup.
Like his fiery predecessors, Allan Donald and Dale Steyn, he has an athletic and powerful run-up. He hammers through the crease with his bounding muscular legs, before releasing the ball with a fluid flow of the limbs and a leap reminiscent of Donald, sans the zinc cream on nose and lips. When in flight, the wrists of the left-arm end up behind the ear; the right arm is a shade behind the same ear, the upper body is swayed like a pole vault just before the vaulter is going to catapult himself. Inspirations of Donald is obvious.
Often, the ball lands back of length, or even shorter, and jags back into right-handers, sharp like shrapnel. None of Afghanistan’s batsmen could douse his short ball. Neither could Mohamed Rizwan a few nights ago in Chennai. The Pakistan batsman is someone who counterpunches at the slightest sniff of uneasiness. But Coetzee rendered him helpless. He would jive and jump around in the crease, before knocking him over with a wicked away-seamer.
Like Donald and Steyn, he has frightening speed too. “To bowl fast,” he says, “is my strength. I try to be an enforcer.”
The pace, Coetzee says in an ICC video where he had shed his bandana to reveal his neatly-set straight hair, he got from playing with his elder brother Petrus in the backyard with the dogs in tow, acting as fielders. “He was also a pacer, and we were always in a competition as to who bowled the fastest. He was three years older, and so I was the one who always had to try extra hard,” he would tell The Stumped.
Naturally, he aced every age group and burst into the first-class scene when he was just 19. That’s where his real development began too, under the watchful eyes of his idol Donald. As much as his pace, Donald was impressed by his willingness to learn. “He walks into every team meeting with a notebook and is almost always the one player with the most questions about the opposition, game plans, and everything else. He builds his little blocks,” he once said.
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His national bowling coach Eric Simmons approves Donald’s observation in the ICC video. “He is very inquisitive about the game, and even the minutest detail. He is an absolute student of the game,” he says. As an example, he points out his leg-cutter. “It’s something he developed recently, and it’s an incredible ball to have with that fast-arm action of his. A lot of batsmen will have that in their mind, also that he could swing the ball both ways. It was last year that he learned to move the ball away and it has made a huge difference,” Simmons said.
He also has the ability to seam the ball away from the right-hander in conventional fashion too, as he showed when inducing Jos Buttler to nick behind. Buttler thought he could force the ball through covers off the back foot, but the extra movement and bounce foxed him. “It’s one of those wickets that I really enjoyed so far in my career,” he would later say. As Buttler walked back, he kept staring at him, arms spread, before he would shriek in joy.
His celebrations are a riot of emotions, and he has infused South Africa with a rough edge that could stand by them in difficult times. The last-minute replacement is making heads turn, in both joy and fear.
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