Playing a home ODI for the first time in nearly two years, Anrich Nortje put on a fine bowling display against England, finishing with the third four-wicket haul of his ODI career so far. It’s another reminder of Nortje’s brilliance, and his growing reputation as one of the finest quicks of his time.

In 2019, Anrich Nortje – four matches into his ODI career – missed out on a World Cup spot after suffering a thumb fracture. Yet to play Tests or T20Is, he was, for the general public, just another quick from the South African pace factory.

But he wasn’t just another quick. Those who’d followed him in the Mzansi Super League the previous year knew how rapid he could be, including teammate Dale Steyn who couldn’t stop raving about Nortje’s pace.

“When I came onto the scene, it was exactly the same thing [as Nortje],” Steyn said in an interview in 2018. “It was just extreme speed. That’s what gets everyone – ‘Wow! You’re smashing the keeper’s gloves, you’re making batsmen duck, bounce and jump and everything.”

Four years later, gloves continue to get smashed and batters continue to jump. It’s time for another World Cup, but Nortje is better established and possibly even quicker.

Since the start of 2020, Nortje’s taken 117 wickets at 24.15 across formats, a tally bettered only by Kagiso Rabada [126 at 27.21] for South Africa. Among all international quicks in the same period, Nortje ranks seventh, with a better bowling average than three of the six above him.

What sets Nortje apart is how consistently rapid he is. Unyieldingly rapid. According to CricViz data, Nortje is the fastest bowler to feature in at least two matches on English soil since data has been available, beating the likes of Brett Lee, Mark Wood and Shaun Tait. In his debut IPL season in 2020, Nortje broke the record for the  fastest ball in the tournament’s history, clocking 156.2 kph/97.1 mph, and ended with the fourth-most wickets in the season. In the 2022 T20 World Cup, he bowled the third-fastest ball – clocked at 154.31 kph/95.88 mph.

In a bowling attack that is, on an average, quicker than the one he debuted alongside, Nortje’s role is clear – to “try and bowl quick, to try to bring energy and momentum for the team. It is generally later on in the day [in Tests] when it happens.” It’s no surprise that David Warner, a fine player of pace, called Nortje’s spell to him last month as the “fastest he’d ever faced”.

But even with his one true weapon, Nortje has several other attributes that make him a world-class quick. He mixes his lengths really well; with his smooth-flowing action, and the average speeds he generates, it can’t be easy for batters to pick changes early. With his action, switching to the yorker is just as imperceptible as sending down a bouncer, and the 6’1” frame adds an extra level of steepness to his offering.

For any quick, subtle changes of pace can create a world of difference. Nortje does that with cutters and knuckle balls, creating a multiverse of variations to test batters out of their wits. Mix that with his ability to hit Test-match lengths with a white ball, and you have a bowler extremely hard to get away with. Take, for instance, the first ODI at Bloemfontein against England. With 65 needed off 80 for the tourists, Nortje bowled a 138 kph delivery to Jos Buttler in the channel of uncertainty, forcing him to play at it and making him edge behind. He took three more – one off a bouncer, two from hard lengths – and England ended up losing by 27 runs.

Nortje’s abilities have shone through across continents and terrains, highlighting that genuine pace in the hands of a smart bowler is unbeatable. In T20Is, his economy is exactly 5.37 in both Australia and UAE, two countries with surfaces that are poles apart from quicks. In Australia, he averages 8.54, while in UAE, it stands at 11.55 [five matches each]. His record in India sticks out like a sore thumb, but that could change in the future as more IPL experience comes his way.

An opportunity to change that will come later this year at the World Cup, on pitches that traditionally assist slower bowlers more than quicks. Unlike last time, Nortje will be going into the tournament with considerable experience and a richer arsenal at his disposal. Injuries better stay away – he spent a good part of last season recovering from a hip injury, but that’s a peril few fast bowlers can escape from.

Bowling in tandem with Kagiso Rabada, Lungi Ngidi and Marco Jansen, and consistently clocking over 90mph, Nortje’s speeds will, no doubt, be continue to be spoken about. But even among those names, and others around the world, Nortje’s reputation isn’t just built around how fast he bowls. Speed is just a subset of Nortje’s excellence, and we’re only seeing more and more of it.