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Interviews

Nandre Burger: 'I didn't want to be a cricketer, it was a free way to study'

The South Africa fast bowler has had a serendipitous and unexpected path to cricket and now his first IPL

Shashank Kishore
Shashank Kishore
28-Mar-2024
Nandre Burger made his South Africa debut in all three formats in December 2023, the month he also got picked for the IPL  •  Rajasthan Royals

Nandre Burger made his South Africa debut in all three formats in December 2023, the month he also got picked for the IPL  •  Rajasthan Royals

Nandre Burger didn't think he'd play professional cricket. But when a trial earned him admission to University of the Witwatersrand (WITS), with a full scholarship to pursue a psychology major, he decided to give it a crack.
That decision in 2014 proved life changing. Today, Burger, 28, is an all-format fast bowler for South Africa. He featured in the SA20 for Joburg Super Kings last month and earlier this week, he made his IPL debut for Rajasthan Royals in their win over Lucknow Super Giants.
At 15, Burger was among the top players in the age-group regional tennis championships. At 17, he competed in South Africa's squash national championships. But when a persistent back injury flared up, he turned his attention to cricket.
"Sounds strange, right," Burger asks. "WITS offered a scholarship for those who played cricket. I thought it was cool. I didn't want to be a cricketer, but I was getting a free way to study, so I thought why not? Cricket was actually my back-up to academics (laughs)."
Burger, a left-arm quick, had just recovered from his injury and Neil Levenson, the university coach, thought he'd glimpsed a future South Africa fast bowler when he saw the 18-year-old bowl.
But Burger didn't rate himself highly. "I laughed it off at first. I was like, 'Man, I bowl at 125kph. I can't do this for a living. I've seen guys bowl 145kph.' Neil would have none of that. I said to him, 'Okay, I'll give this a go.' And within a few weeks, I was excited to train. I'd miss classes to be at training, wanting to work batters over.
"Then I got the chance to be a net bowler at the franchise team in Jo'burg - Highveld Lions. I'd always played cricket in the backyard with friends and parents, but wouldn't say I ever had the desire to be a professional."
In 2016-17, when Burger was six months short of completing his psychology major, he had a tough decision to make. Cape Cobras offered him his first franchise contract, but it would mean moving to Cape Town immediately.
"I discontinued my degree and left Jo'burg," he says. "The course didn't allow me to pursue it remotely. My contract needed me to be available in Cape Town. So I went all in on cricket."
That decision stood vindicated last December when he earned his South Africa cap during the third T20I against India in Johannesburg."It's funny how life works out, isn't it?"
Funnier things continued to happen.
In only his second ODI, on December 19 in Gqeberha, Burger picked up 3 for 30 as India were bowled out for 211. Those were his first set of wickets in the format.
"As I walked off the field, Pommie [Mbangwa] and Shaun Pollock were like, 'Well bowled, and congrats,' and I'm thinking, congrats for taking three wickets? Congrats for bowling ten overs? It wasn't even my debut, so I'm confused. I go in, change and come back down again.
"Shaun was like, 'I'm sure you're so excited.' I still didn't get it, so I said, 'Yeah, it's cool, I think I got my first [ODI] wicket, so it's a great feeling.' Then he's like, 'No man, I mean for the IPL. You're going to play for Rajasthan Royals'."
Burger had been picked by Royals at the IPL auction in Dubai for INR 50 lakh (US$ 60,000 approx).
"Everyone was saying 'Congratulations' and I was oblivious to what was happening. After the game, when I put my phone on, all I read was 'congrats, congrats, congrats' and 'well done, well done'. I didn't know if it was for the game or IPL.
"As it is I'm terrible on my phone; if nothing has happened, I'll take like a week to respond to messages. You can imagine how long I would've taken. I'm pretty sure there are people I still haven't responded to, but I may have probably seen them and thanked them [in person]."
If the news of his IPL selection was dramatic, his Test selection story is even more so.
"We were playing a four-day game against Titans. I'd just got to Newlands, and we were getting ready for the second day. Just before I was about to enter the field, I get a phone call from Shukri [Conrad, South Africa men's head coach].
"He said, 'I'm just letting you know the Test team for the India series is going to be announced on Monday. Your name will be in it, congrats.' This is just before I'm about to enter the field. I was like 'Woah, no pressure'. (laughs)
"By the time I actually got to bowl, I was so emotionally tired. It felt like I'd played ten days of cricket. Keeping the secret to myself was the hardest part. My team-mates were like, 'Oh, you seem happy today' and I'm like, 'Hey, I'm just a happy person'. It was really cool."
He almost kept his Test debut in Centurion a secret from his parents too. "My brother-in-law, niece, parents, girlfriend - everyone was around. I told them I wasn't playing, so that it'd be a nice surprise when they saw me get the cap.
"But when my dad saw me mark out my run-up, he knew. He signaled to me from afar with a thumbs-up, as if to say, 'Don't worry, I see you, you're playing'.
"Getting to wear the Test cap, earning a win on Test debut was great." As a bonus, he took seven wickets in the innings win.
From not having played any cricket for a year until October 2022 due to a lumbar stress fracture to earning debuts across all three formats all in the space of a month was a turnaround he didn't see coming, but is grateful for.
"For the first four months [after the injury], I had to sit still, not move a lot and that was the toughest part. I had a lot of time to reflect on time away from cricket. The desire and hunger built up inside me.
"I had nothing to lose when I first started playing, I was simply playing to enjoy it. But when I was close to being picked internationally, I realised I was putting way too much pressure on myself. That year away kind of helped me slow down and give me the focus back. I learnt to just enjoy bowling again.
"I've now played two Tests. If I never play another Test, I'll still be fine with it because I enjoyed and lived every moment of those two. Those were the biggest lessons I took from missing a whole year. I follow it religiously. At times, I can get extra competitive on the field, but it's who we are, right?"

****

Back now in his hotel room in Jaipur, Burger's face is still pink from the Holi celebrations hosted by Royals. He'd never played it before, but warmly embraced an afternoon of fun and games.
"It's been amazing," Burger says of his IPL experience. "The one thing I love is that it's a family. And I'm big on family - for me, it's a core principle. Everyone celebrated Holi. You're seeing a bunch of pink men walking around.
"Moments like those are cool to help with team bonding. Everyone got to act like a kid for an hour. No matter what pressure you have on the field or what you're going through in life in general, for that one hour they were a bunch of kids, throwing water and colour on each other."
He also loves exploring new places and had just returned from a short walk with his girlfriend, Ashley, visiting a few monuments in and around Jaipur.
"My girlfriend is an architect and she's excited to see all the buildings," Burger says. "We went to Patrika Gate, the clay-colour monument down the road. She looked at it and went very technical with some of the construction. I really didn't understand anything (laughs). Guess it's the same when I talk cricket with her.
The other great thing about being at the IPL has been an opportunity to learn and chat with a player he grew up admiring.
"Ah, Boulty [Trent Boult]. I wanted to be like him. Understand what he thinks when he opens the bowling. He always takes a wicket in the powerplay. Just to be able to chat with him, understand his processes and how can I try and incorporate some of his methods into my thinking.
"I've had so much time to pick his brain, trying to observe how he goes about things. I've been like a crazy fan boy around him. But it's okay, I think (smiles sheepishly). It's amazing to open the bowling with him. It could be pretty fun to do it for an entire season."
His all-time bowling hero, though, is closer to home.
"It's clich├ęd I guess, but it's Dale Steyn. He always wanted to be the guy to turn the game, no matter what the situation was. He always made things happen. I liked that.
"I've been fortunate enough to open the bowling in a few games with him. I'll cherish that forever. If there's anyone I can look up to, he's right up there in the way he competed. That's all I want to do."

Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo

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