Cape Town – Just how much activity soon-to-retire Morne Morkel gets in the four-Test Australian series has suddenly become an especially intriguing issue.
That is in the wake of the confirmation on Monday that the lanky pace bowler will quit all forms of international cricket upon completion of the cut-throat combat against the Baggy Greens.
There are, of course, five answers: one, two, three or four appearances … or none at all.
Yes, I don’t believe you can completely omit from the table the last-named possibility, given the complexities that govern the South African game, and which may well have played at least a partial role in the 33-year-old’s decision.
Earlier denials that a financially tantalising, secure, late-career Kolpak contract with an English county (last year there were reportedly around three fishing for Morkel) was on his horizon ought now to be followed up pretty soon with a nailed-down revelation, instead.
If so, there will be widespread sympathy among cricket’s intelligentsia for such a development as the twilight phase beckons for his durable career – one in which he spiritedly repelled a grave threat, at one point, that he might be forced to retire prematurely due to complicated back problems.
A personal belief not many months ago was that Morkel might try to soldier on in Proteas colours to squeeze in one final crack at that so-elusive World Cup in England and Wales in mid-2019: he had been one of the more animatedly emotional figures in the immediate on-field aftermath of that gut-wrenching, desperately tight loss to New Zealand at the semi-final stage of CWC 2015.
But the current Proteas, let’s face it, don’t currently look really compelling candidates for that trophy, even before you begin to assess the matter of their long-standing major ICC tournament hoodoo.
Did Morkel suddenly just think “bridge too far”?
It seems feasible, and his complete clearance soon of all Proteas obligations would also help smooth the passage for -- and perhaps hasten -- that likely county deal.
Morkel has been a yeoman servant of South Africa, even if he was a figure those who liked and respected him would have willed to greater harvests of wickets per innings than he often ended up with, despite the ceaseless endeavour in those long pins of his.
He has been, in some respects, one of those bowlers who frequently helps soften up batsmen with his back-of-a-length battery before others in the attack nip in to force the actual dismissal.
It may explain why as many as 83 Test matches have seen him snare a modest seven hauls of five wickets or more.
Measure that against someone like Dale Steyn (86 Tests, 26 five-fors) or Allan Donald one generation before (72 Tests, 20 five-wicket bundles) and … well, let’s just say that the unassuming, though always popular Morkel spent quite a lot of time grafting industriously rather than getting the true superstar back-slaps.
He’s been like the admirably consistent football striker, who will bag you key goals more often than not, but seldom grab the headlines with superlative hat-tricks and the like.
Increasingly adept at keeping a stranglehold on scoring rates as his career developed, will you allow me the literary licence to label Morkel a valuable “chip-awayer” in any attack he has played in?
It is in that regard that he may come to be missed at international level more than many realise.
That gnawing away has seen him pick up 294 Test wickets, an illustrious achievement entirely in itself.
Only four compatriots sport 300 or more Test scalps – Shaun Pollock (421), long-time partner in destruction Steyn (419), Makhaya Ntini (390) and Donald (330).
Morkel would no doubt love to swell that elite to five, and it remains to be seen whether his major announcement on Monday has any impact on that objective, with the big fellow just six short of the landmark.
One school of thought may well have it that, as he is imminently forsaking his SA career, he might as well be marginalised with some immediacy, thus ensuring that another tall tree who bangs the ball in with menace, young Lungi Ngidi, has a clearer path to involvement in the heavyweight Oz series and only speeds up his learning curve as a result.
Remember that the Proteas Test squad named a few days ago includes four out-and-out quick bowlers and a sound bet is that only three will make the cut in Durban.
I believe decorum will prevail and Morkel will start for South Africa at Kingsmead – where he began his Test career, against India on December 26, 2006 -- on Thursday, part of a trio also comprising Messrs Rabada and Philander.
The sometimes endearingly calamity-prone cricketer (David Lloyd affectionately brands him “the worst footballer ever” on the evidence of warm-up kick-arounds) will hardly lack motivation for a rousing, swansong few weeks …
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