When you think of ‘characters’ in the game, you don’t get too many more colourful than Andre Nel. A big fast bowler with a personality to match on the field, Nel too took 123 wickets from 36 Tests at 31.86. He also had 106 ODI wickets in 79 matches. One of his most memorable tussles was with S Sreesanth at the Wanderers. But the spit-fire image of the snarling pacer who created an alter ego called ‘Gunther’ who he said was responsible for all his on-field aggression is in direct contrast with the mild-mannered, smiling and soft-spoken gent off the field. Since retirement, Nel has coached domestic sides in South Africa and though he doesn’t now, he maintains ‘my first love has always been cricket and will always be cricket.’ In a chat with Wisden India, his six-year-old daughter beside him, Nel opened up about his career, why he needed to pick a fight on the field, his hopes of getting back to coaching, the Sreesanth incident and why he would love to bowl to Virat Kohli. Excerpts:
With the way cricket is now, do you think it is losing out on characters such as yourself?
The rules have also changed so much that you cannot be a character anymore. You have to be quite restrained, you can’t do as much anymore. It does make it difficult to have characters in cricket these days. But there’s so much talent that that almost overpowers the characters. I can probably name the characters on the fingers of one hand. That’s a sad thing. The penalties are getting so harsh that they are almost taking the characters out of cricket because they are not allowed to express themselves. Yes, there are a lot of people watching, lot more kids and you have to note that and be sensible about that. But it would be nice to see a bit more characters, it’s more fun watching guys – not sledging it out but having a little go at each other. Something different is always exciting to see. I’m very sad to see not as many characters in the game anymore.
Who are the characters you would have loved to bowl to?
I would love to bowl Virat Kohli. I always wanted to get the best players out. Yes I might fail, but if I can get him out, I know I can compete at that level. I would have loved to bowl to him. I would love to bowl to Hardik Pandya, he’s a nice, lovely character. He is always looking for a battle, that’s his nature. He wants to counter-attack. That’s a challenge I would have liked to take on. Also, Shikhar Dhawan – looks like a guy who doesn’t veer away from a battle. These three seem like real characters in the Indian side. They look like, if you give them a battle, they’ll give you a battle back. Those are the guys I would like to bowl to.
We now have the demerits system. If it had been there in your time, you might have missed many matches…
(Laughs) I was about to say that! I wouldn’t have played a lot of matches. I think it’s a good thing, but also these days you should try to push the boundaries. They’re all too scared to push the boundaries. Rules are there to be pushed. Not bent, but pushed to the limit.
Yes, it’s a good thing. Manages players better, and less trouble. More respect for players and for kids and people seeing it. That’s a good thing but it takes away a little bit of the characters. It would be nice to see some characters coming out and pushing the boundaries more. I know I wouldn’t have played a lot. But I also know that if I hadn’t done that, I would never be as decent a player that I was. Some good, some bad. I guess that’s what life is about.
What’s your take on how the India v South Africa contest has developed over the years?
I think it’s a brilliant contest. The Indian batsmen have equipped themselves really well with the bouncy wickets. They also are a lot younger and tend to take the battle on now. They don’t back down. It’s the nature of Kohli as captain. He likes a battle and it rubs off on all his players and the team.
Do you see an evolution in the Indian team from the time you played them to the current side?
It’s different eras. Different wickets, different conditions, different kind of bowlers, different mentality of winning Test matches. We hadn’t played as much T20 cricket. Now the batting rates are much quicker than then. Different eras, it’s hard to compare. The game has developed so quickly so big that you can’t compare. You had Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag. Brilliant players, but you can’t compare them. There’s always been good players. If you sit them down and compare eras, they’ll be just as good as each other.
Speaking of India v South Africa, there was this famous incident with Sreesanth…
I have always enjoyed the battle. If you want to play international sport and you can’t accept winning a battle or losing a battle… ‘Ok listen, this time you won, maybe I will beat you next time.’ That’s what sports is all about, I have always enjoyed that, that’s in my nature. The moment people said I can’t do something, that’s my nature to prove you wrong.
Did you laugh when he did his dance?
I don’t think I was angry, I can’t even remember what I said to him. These things are probably in the heat of the moment and battle, and after it was done, I forgot about it straightaway. I could never tell you what I said to you on the field because it’s in the heat of the moment and after that it’s gone, irrespective of what’s happened.
Are you aware of Sreesanth’s status now?
Yeah, I heard he had gone to court for match-fixing and he is in a bit of trouble. He has found a lawyer to defend him now, and wants to play in England or somewhere. So I still follow cricket. But he was a good cricketer in his time, I will always respect him for that. He was a good cricketer and a good bowler of that era.
After that incident, did you two ever talk to each other?
We always used to have a laugh together, we would see each other and laugh. There were no hard feelings. But that’s the thing, everyone misinterpreted me as aggressive all the time. Yes, I was aggressive but I would be the first person to go and have a beer with you and have a laugh with you. Most of the guys I had the biggest fights with are probably best friends with me now. People don’t understand the person away from cricket. It’s always easier to make up opinions on what you see on television but no one makes an effort to meet you off the field and that’s the nice thing about me. I was pretty relaxed and calm off the field.
And we have to talk about Gunther…
It’s the funniest thing, how the name started. We played in England, one of our technical guys in the team, said sometimes when I bowl… You know when German guys go to the mountains, and they don’t get enough oxygen to the brain, they go slightly loopy. He said when I bowl, it looks like I get lack of oxygen to the brain and I go loopy. So we nicknamed me Gunther. It was just a fun thing in the team. The press got a sniff of it. At the end of the day, it was actually nice because the press got carried away with the Gunther issue and they made a bigger issue of it and I didn’t have do anything. So it helped me because the press helped me talk myself up and make myself more aggressive than I wanted to be. But no, he never comes out! He disappears. He hardly ever comes out (laughs).
You’ve been a coach for a while. Is Andre Nel the coach similar to Andre Nel the bowler?
(Laughs) It’s funny, you guys have seen me on television and I was quite aggressive and passionate. But I am very relaxed off the field. I have done a lot of things wrong in my cricketing career also. I didn’t have the opportunities to see and correct my mistakes, but now when I see the guys doing the same things that I was doing, I go and tell them ‘Listen guys, I know where this is going, probably go this way.’ So that’s sometimes is a nice thing to be able to do it. But I am pretty relaxed and laidback and probably the softest guy you can meet off the field. I still think when you get an opportunity to play for your country, you might get one chance and you might as well give it everything. If you don’t want to give everything, you might as well leave it. That’s always been my motto in my life and that’s why I always did well for my country.
So as a coach, if a bowler is like you, and one is calmer – would you change any of their approaches?
It all depends, you have to understand your players. You might see if this helps a bowler to be better, being aggressive. Some bowlers might not want to be aggressive to be better bowlers. You have to see what these guys are about. Sometimes I feel like I wish Morne Morkel was a bit more aggressive. He is a brilliant bowler but he always seems so calm and relaxed. It’s brilliant, that suits him but if he showed that aggressive intent to certain batters, they would probably think, ‘Oh what’s wrong with Morne Morkel? Something’s up with him, now he is looking for a bit of a fight!’ That could be a different armoury, different angle to Morne Morkel.So all it depends on what the bowler’s about, understanding what the player is about and then you take it from there. And not everything is about aggression. If you are smart like Bhuvneshwar Kumar – unreal bowler. No aggression but pure skill, swing and talent. You have to work with a player’s capabilities and see what he needs to make him a better bowler. That’s the challenge of a coach, to understand his players and what’s best for them. I have played for a long time, I played county cricket and I played a lot here, international cricket and yes it’s a pity that I can’t use that knowledge for players but hopefully one day I will be able to.
You spoke about mistakes made. If you were to play for South Africa again, what would you change?
I think the off-field demeanours are probably the things that I was pretty much disappointed about my career. But when I played, I always played to the best of my capabilities, gave my best. I said a few words to certain people but that was always part of my armoury. I knew I didn’t have the best action, but the moment I looked for a fight or a scrap, didn’t mean I wanted to do something to the batsman, but I knew it made me a better bowler when I was aggressive. And I had to look for a fight to make a better bowler. So I wouldn’t change anything about how I played and what I did on a cricket field. But all the things that I did off the field, I’d probably change a bit, all those stupid things I did, and that’s where I sort of guide the guys off the field sometimes. Because these days because no one takes the time to educate the players when they all of a sudden get all this fame and fortune when they play for the country. There is a lot money, lot of opportunities and sometimes they don’t get coached or educated properly what do with all of a sudden. And having been all through that and also made lots of mistakes during that period, you can guide guys in the right way so that they don’t make those mistakes in their careers and don’t have to deal with unpleasant situations off the field. So that’s the thing I would probably change about my career, but also now I can help guys not to do the same things and that’s a nice thing.
There was this whole controversy about you missing out on a tour of India in 2008, with someone else [Charl Langeveldt] having got in because of the quota system…
It’s a complex issue. It’s always been a part of our country and that’s just one of those things. It’s disappointing at times and you always think you’re better and whatever. But that’s things you cannot control. Yes you can feel upset, but the biggest thing is you can comeback from the disappointment, to show people. Show people that ‘You should have selected me.’
As South Africans, you have to accept it’ll be part of your country. Just make sure your skills are the best, you are fitter, you are stronger. If you then don’t get picked, then you can walk away with dignity, honesty. You can say you’ve given yourself every chance to be picked. At least you got that dignity to walk away from with.
Do you sometimes regret not playing in this era, when there are agencies building cricketers’ brands heavily?
It’s amazing, these guys are earning serious amounts of money playing lots of IPL, playing T20 tournaments all over the world and sponsorships are a lot bigger. You can always say, I wish in my era we had that. It’s sad to see that we didn’t earn as much as they do now, but that’s life. Times move on and you can’t regret them being or wishing they were the same. We had great careers, we earned good money, I played in the IPL. We had the same opportunities, but it’s just that the times have changed so there is more money involved in sport, and they are going to make money. I am not jealous and don’t envy them. It’s nice, but the only thing that scares me about it is that there’s lot of players these days that are more interested in money instead of playing for your country. Especially the West Indies, they don’t want to play for their country, they want to play T20 tournaments all over the world. It’s different for them with so many islands being one country, but I still think it’s the biggest honour and privilege playing for your country and the biggest pinnacle you want, instead of playing for money all over the world.
South Africa have always had a rich pace legacy. Where do you see yourself in that legacy?
We South Africans are big guys, we eat a lot. We are athletes. That’s just our thing, in our DNA we are athletes and always will be. Fast bowlers are hard to find but because we are quite competitive and big guys, they sometimes get found easier. You have to nurture them and make sure you guide them the right way fitness-wise and strength-wise. Don’t use him too quickly too fast. A lot of times you find a really good really fast bowler, but he might be 18 and if you push him too quickly, by the time he’s 20-21, he’ll be tired of fast bowling. And that’s why a lot of guys sometimes when they are late developers as bowlers, they do better because they haven’t been pushed so quickly so fast. I think it helps, that our guys play more rugby and then all of a sudden by 15-16, they realise ‘S**t, I can bowl actually bowl fast.’ And then they start focussing on that.
My legacy as a fast bowler is that hopefully one day I can be involved with cricket again. Especially I’ve always been passionate about bowling and would love to educate and equip \ bowlers to be ready to play international cricket one day. If it happens, it happens. If it doesn’t so be it, I’ll get on with life.
Did you ever consider changing your action?
I wanted to change it but if I changed it, I would have been the worst bowler. I got to that level playing for South Africa in that way. All of a sudden if you change it, it might take the effectiveness out of you. It wasn’t the best action, everyone realised that. That’s why I had to look for a fight. The moment I got to the crease, I had to be really aggressive towards where I want to bowl. If I had a fight with a batter, my momentum would push more to him. I understood exactly how my action worked. I also spoke to Mark Boucher a lot. He was the best guy to tell me the momentum is coming to him. The moment I knew my momentum was going to him, yes I knew my action wasn’t great, but if it was strong at the crease – I had a certain check points in my action and I really had to understand it to make it effective. I could have changed, but I would have lost my effectiveness of what I could do. I looked like I would swing the ball in, but I swung the ball out. It was completely different, it was probably strange. But I just sort of worked out what worked for me. Luckily enough, all the coaches that worked with me understood.
You’ve held Allan Donald and Shaun Pollock in high regard, but given Dale Steyn’s achievements, who do you rate as the best South African pacer of all time?
It’s a hard one again because it’s different eras. Allan Donald was just a pure athlete, his action really beautiful. Steyn is also a pure athlete, but completely different. He doesn’t get as much bounce, more skidder. Donald got more bounce from a fuller length. Steyn has to be fuller and swings it more. It’s difficult, we’ve got so many good bowlers – Michael Procter, Shaun Pollock, Makhaya Ntini. All so different. I don’t think a lot of people will realise the magnitude of Steyn’s shoulder’s injury. And then coming back and bowling very well in Cape Town [in the first Test]. Unfortunately injured again. You have to feel for him. Steyn, if fit, is probably the best bowler in the world for now. But Donald will always be my role model as a paceman and a person. Shaun Pollock – me and Shaun are really good friends. It’s almost like opposite attracts – he is a quiet guy and I’m crazy. We speak to each other quite often still. Steynki will always be a guy I’ll respect a lot, for what he is doing as a cricketer. Also Morne Morkel – everybody wrote him off six months back. Everyone said he shouldn’t play Test cricket. Look at him now. Especially when we went to England he bowled really really well. He found the right lengths. You can’t separate these guys.
How would you like your daughter to see Andre Nel the cricketer, if she sees some videos of you on YouTube?
If my daughter sees me on YouTube, sees me shouting and screaming, at least she knows the real person behind what’s going on in the field. She will know who the real Andre Nel is, and not what people saw on television.