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Calm after the storm

Madhu Jawali, Centurion, DH News Service Jan 20 2018, 23:54 IST
COOL GUY: Andre Nel is remembered in India for his encounter with S Sreesant. DH PHOTO/MADHU JAWALI

COOL GUY: Andre Nel is remembered in India for his encounter with S Sreesant. DH PHOTO/MADHU JAWALI

Clad in semi-formals, Andre Nel greets you with a wide smile and asks you in his drawling Afrikaan accent, "how ya doin?" He comes across more like a business executive, which he currently is, than the mean paceman he was. He appears bigger than he did on television but hardly betrays the image of a fast bowler that foul-mouthed rival batsmen.

"I am the softest guy you can meet off the field," he tells you adding that his aggression was limited to the cricket field. "It's funny, you guys have seen me on television and I am quite aggressive and passionate. But I am pretty relaxed off the field. But when I get an opportunity to play for my 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 life and that's why I always did well for my country," he reasons.

Nel, who also played for the Mumbai Indians in IPL, represented South Africa in 36 Tests (123 wickets) and 79 ODIs (103 wickets) between 2001 and 2008. Though his on-field antics didn't endear him to many of his opponents during his playing days, Nel says he wouldn't change a thing about how he played his cricket. He believes the aggression brought out the best in him.

"I always played to the best of my capabilities, I always gave my best," he begins. "I said a few words to a few people but that was always part of my armoury. I don't know if that was the best option, but the moment I looked for a fight or a scrap, it 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 used to look for a fight to make myself a better bowler and that's how I wanted to do it. I wouldn't change anything about how I played and what I did on a cricket field."

He was referred to as Gunther within the South African team for the way he bowled but he eventually went on to live the mythical character. Gunther apparently is a German mountain guy who doesn't get enough oxygen to the brain and that makes him go crazy.

"It's the funniest thing how the name started," he says before telling the story behind the nickname. "We played in England and one of our technical guys in the team, said sometimes when I bowl... 'you know the German guys going to the mountains... They get lack of 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 they 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 else. It actually helped me because the press helped me to talk myself up and make myself more aggressive than I wanted to be. He (Gunther) never comes up anymore, he disappears. He hardly ever comes," he laughs.

Off the field, Nel feels he wasn't always the best-behaved player in terms of having control over his personal life. He was once fined 15000 Rands for smoking marijuana on the 'A' team's tour of West Indies, in 2003 he was caught drink-driving in Australia, he was said to have had an extra-marital affair in 2010 while playing in County cricket and he also allegedly tried to take his own life after his affair became public.

"I think the off-field demeanours are probably the things that I was pretty much disappointed about my career," says Nel who now tries to counsel young players who appear to veer off the right path. "All the things that I did off the field probably changed a lot for me, all those stupid things I did, and that's where I sort of guide the guys off the field sometimes these days because no one takes the time to educate the players when they all of a sudden get all this fortune and fame when they play for the country."

Nel admits it was tough dealing with his troubles. "Yes, it's your own fault. It took time to heal. But at the end of the day how many times should you say sorry? I made my mistakes, I felt bad about it and said sorry. Eventually after that you have to say, 'listen I have to say enough sorry now. My life has to move on.' It isn't easy but you have to make that decision eventually. That's what I did and I think it's worked out well."

Whether one liked him or not, Nel made cricket-viewing a spectacle – he was perhaps one of the last characters the game saw. With myriad rules by the ICC on players' conduct coming into force and with the sprouting of image-conscious player agents, characters have disappeared from cricket.

"The rules have also changed so much these days that you can't really be a character anymore," he emphasises. "You have to be quite restrained, you can't do as much anymore. But there is so much talent it almost overpowers characters. You don't see as many characters these days, I can probably name one or two. That's the sad thing, it's not the images, it's the rule changes – the penalties are getting so harsh that they almost take the characters out of cricket because they are not allowed to express themselves.

"Yes, there may be a lot of people watching, lots of kids watching, you got to be sensible about that but it would be nice to see bit more characters. I think it's more fun watching guys, not sledging, but just having a go at each other because it makes it exciting to watch. Sometimes it becomes too boring, a bit monotonous for me to watch cricket at the moment. It's the same thing, bat dominates the ball, very rarely ball dominates bat," he explains.

For an Indian cricket fan, Nel's memory became etched in his mind after he and S Sreesanth went at each other in the first Test in Johannesburg in December 2006. During India's second innings, when Sreesanth came out to bat, Nel beat Sreesanth and went up to say a few words. In reply, Sreesanth hit a six straight over the bowler's head and followed it up with a little gig.

Nel says he doesn't remember a thing that he said to Sreesanth but he does feel for disgraced Indian paceman now. "I heard he has apparently gone to court in match-fixing and he is in big trouble," he says you ask him if he knows what is Sreesanth up to these days.

"He has found a lawyer to defend him now, wants to play in England or somewhere. So, I still follow cricket. But he was a good cricketer of that time, I will always respect him for that. He was a good cricketer and a good bowler of that era."

So, did he enjoy those sorts of battles?

"That's what sport is all about," he replies. "I come with aggression, you come with a battle back and you show me that you are not scared, that's what sport is all about. That's why you want to play international sport -- the true battle. And whoever comes on top, well done to him. I have also lost some battles and it was enjoyable. Sometimes you lose and sometimes you win but make sure as a better sportsman, you go and shake hands with the opponent either you win or lose and go on from there," he offers.

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