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Page last updated at 08:57 GMT, Monday, 7 July 2008 09:57 UK

Cricket's craziest man

Andre Nel

By Tom Fordyce

Here's a typical quote from England pace-man Ryan Sidebottom: "Hopefully I'll get the ball in the right areas."

And here's one from South Africa's Andre Nel: "I've got an alter ego called Gunther. When I start bowling, he takes over."

I'd always wondered what goes on in Nel's head. When he comes in to bowl it's like watching a man whose brain is at war with his face.

His eyes bulge like a frog's. His tongue flaps around like a beached fish. His follow-through takes him almost into a batsman's trousers. Lip-readers in the crowd check their dictionaries and blush.

Now, at last, I know.

119 Test wickets from 34 matches
Took 14 wickets in three-Test series in Australia
Returned figures of 6-32 and 4-56 to beat West Indies in Barbados, April 2005
Took key wickets of captain Michael Vaughan and Kevin Pietersen v England in 2007 World Cup
Has dismissed Brian Lara eight times in Tests

"Gunther lives in the mountains in Germany," Nel tells me cheerfully. "When he was a kid there was a lack of oxygen going to his brain, so something went wrong in his mind.

"As soon as I get thrown the ball it's like a little switch goes in my head. It's time to get aggressive."

Quite a few fast bowlers get aggressive - it's part of the job. Very few of them, however, blame it on an invisible man living inside their head.

Then again, Nel is not your typical modern-day cricketer. Men have fallen into comas while waiting for Sidebottom to say something interesting, but where Nel goes, fun and frolics surely follow. You just wouldn't want to be there all the time.

"I'm pretty hyperactive," he says. "If I stay still I get bored very quickly. I start bullying people, messing around, joking around."

He looks a bit sheepish. "I've cracked someone's rib in the dressing-room before. We were messing around so I gave him a hug and cracked his rib. Just good clean fun."

Extraordinarily for a man who seems barely in control of his own brain and limbs, Nel is a qualified accountant. He even claims that he intends to go back into accountancy when he retires from cricket.

It's difficult to imagine a man less suited to office life. I picture him throwing paper darts round the office, pushing people into bins and running into walls just to amuse himself.

"I do find it hard to sit in an office all day," he says wistfully. "That's the thing I find hardest. I get bored so quickly."

Feb 2001: Bursts into tears on pitch after felling hero Allan Donald with bouncer
May 2002: Fined for smoking marijuana with team-mates on tour in West Indies
April 2003: Sent home from South Africa 'A' tour to Australia for drink-driving
Dec 2003: Fined for sticking tongue out at Chris Gayle after dismissing him
April 2008: Hit with penalty points for using obscene language and throwing ball in dangerous manner
Nel, who is 31 on 15 July, was far from certain to make this summer's Test series in England. He was dropped from the squad for March's tour to India as a result of South Africa's racial quota system, and played for Essex and the Mumbai Indians in the interim.

But with the Proteas relying on pace as their main weapon - and with team management keen to give young star Dale Steyn as much rest as possible - Nel has been brought back in. Test grounds will instantly be livelier places as a result.

"It's pointless just bowling to a batsman and then walking back to your mark and doing it all over again, because they'll never feel like they're in a contest," says Nel, who was on course to be a professional rugby player at the age of 18.

"For me I want to be in their faces. The more abuse the crowd throw at me the more it fires me up. That's my nature, my character - I like to prove people wrong. That's why I play the game.

"I'm competitive and I want to do well, and the best way for me to do that as a bowler is to be aggressive and get in people's faces."

Unsurprisingly, Nel is as popular with cricket traditionalists as naked wicketkeepers. He's also shelled out enough in fines to bankroll his own Twenty20 tournament.

Even his claim that he's better behaved than he used to be has a strange rationale behind it.

"In the past I was still young and went a bit overboard, but now over the past three years I've managed to keep it more under control," he says. "That's helped me to be more aggressive and more dangerous."

Andre Nel
Nel one Pietersen nil, 2007 World Cup

A quiet word of advice, too. If you happen to be in the crowd at a Test this summer and, after a few refreshers, fancy giving Gunther a little stick, don't - for Ian Bell's sake at least.

"When the fans go hard and abuse you, I love that," says Nel, with a glint in his eye.

"The more they wind you up and the more they abuse you the more it fires me up to do better against them. It shows a sign of respect if they abuse you more. I love it."

Nel is particularly looking forward to renewing acquaintances with Kevin Pietersen. It was Nel who dismissed KP when the sides met at the last World Cup, celebrating like a deranged lottery winner when he bagged his scalp.

"The biggest thing with KP is that if you give him some talk he gets fired up more. The worst thing you can say to him is, 'Come on then KP', because the more you attack his ego, the harder he'll try to prove you wrong. Especially coming from me - because we're good friends, he'll try to prove me wrong even more."

Does Nel enjoy those battles?

"Massively. Oh, massively. Especially when it comes to egos and people who think they're better than anyone else. I like challenges and I like people putting me down and saying bad things about me."

Doesn't he ever worry that Gunther goes too far? Even his captain Graeme Smith says Nel has "a screw loose".

"In the heat of the moment, sometimes things happen that you don't plan. If it happens, it happens - you might look like an idiot, but so be it. You can't worry about what people think about you - you can only be true to yourself."

Or yourselves.

see also
Behind the Dale Steyn fairytale
08 Jul 08 |  South Africa
SA recall Nel for England series
23 May 08 |  South Africa
Nel discarded as SA quota bites
12 Mar 08 |  Cricket
Nel shines as SA seal series win
12 Mar 08 |  Cricket
Nel gives South Africa advantage
26 Dec 05 |  Cricket
Nel reaches new level
25 Apr 05 |  Cricket
South Africa in England in 2008
14 Nov 07 |  Cricket

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