Cape Town – Hugely more experienced for the lion’s share of
the Test series against England than any other bowling colleague, Morne Morkel
was earmarked upfront as rather obvious new leader of the Proteas’ attack.
With only a fleeting appearance at the start of the four-Test
series by Dale Steyn and none at all by the other member of the old-firm pace
triumvirate, Vernon Philander, the lanky customer towered above anyone else in
the home bowling arsenal for number of caps; the dead-rubber closing Test at
SuperSport Park is his 71st.
But Morkel has blown hot and cold -- a phenomenon that has
certainly stalked him before -- during the summer’s combat for the Basil
D’Oliveira Trophy, already snatched away by the tourists.
That is evidenced by his record with one day to go at
Centurion and South Africa pushing hard for a consolation victory: 13 wickets
at an average of 32.46.
Those stats hardly amount to a train smash but they don’t
come with a great deal of “wow” factor, either.
In conditions richly familiar to him and occasionally pretty
favourable from a bounce point of view to his trade, it is a little
disappointing that three England seamers, Stuart Broad (20.61), Steven Finn
(26.09) and the all-rounder Ben Stokes (29.16) stood above the Vereeniging-born
beanpole at the time of writing.
Morkel’s average is also below his own career one of 29.47,
and with just Tuesday left in the series, he is being notably upstaged by
fresh-faced team-mate Kagiso Rabada who is one tantalising dismissal shy of
pipping Broad to finish as leading wicket-taker across the two teams.
Rabada, helped by a further two strikes before Monday’s
close to add to his much-celebrated 7/112 in England’s first knock, boasts 18
wickets at 25.83.
Just one more would additionally make the 20-year-old just
the 14th bowler in Test history to bag 10 poles or more in a single
match before turning 21, as well as first South African.
The list is headed by Bangladesh’s Enamul Haque jnr, who
recorded 12/200 against Zimbabwe at Dhaka in 2005 at 18 years and 40 days.
While they often say that decent, pressure-building quality
from a head-hunter at the other end indirectly aids a bowler’s productivity in
the wickets column, Rabada has frequently outshone the much more streetwise
Morkel for both discipline and skill over the past few weeks.
The more senior man looked as though he could have a really
major influence on the England series after the impressive way he went about
his business, on pitches light years from his comfort zone, in the previous one
in India. (Mind you, so did the callow Rabada.)
But Morkel has struggled for general consistency and
harmonious rhythm more recently, with commentator Ian Botham pointing out that
the frequency with which he has “lost” his run-up is a sure sign of that
Frankly, we might have also expected a few more spiteful
spells from Morkel – remember the concertedly fierce way he once bombed Australia’s
Michael Clarke at Newlands? – in a current series that has been surprisingly
“nice” all round.
Still, Morkel does boast the key double snaring of England
skipper Alastair Cook at Centurion, and there are still seven wickets left for
him to get among if the Proteas are to earn the welcome tonic of a first win in
I fancy Morkel may just need a couple, too, if he is to stay
a first-teamer in Test terms once Messrs Steyn and Philander are fit again --
all going well -- for the next series against New Zealand in the early spring.
Rabada looks in it for the long haul, and with their records
both Steyn and Philander should walk back into the mix fairly effortlessly ...
under such a scenario, Morkel is naturally rather endangered, especially if
South Africa stick to their much-debated three-seamers-only formula.
The 31-year-old’s right to a place in both the ODI and
Twenty20 mix at present is largely beyond doubt, I think; he has become
admirably reliable and frequently an important game-tilter, especially in the
Tests? There things suddenly look a bit more tenuous.
He may be conscious of that as the Proteas go in for a
determined kill on Tuesday ...
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