Johannesburg - Everyone is now sharing their #MorneMoments, but Morne Morkel’s own golden oldie from 2006 still gives him the shivers.
“It was my first ball in international cricket. Sachin Tendulkar was the batsman. Shaun Pollock gave me the ball. He and Andre Nel were speaking to me, but I didn’t hear anything. When the umpire said ‘play’, my whole body went numb and I didn’t know how I was going to bowl that ball. But then I bowled. And that’s how it all began.”
And now, 12 years later, this scrawny skyscraper has bowled his last ball in international cricket, shortly after becoming the fifth member of the elite 300 club in South African cricket during a season in which he played the best cricket of his life.
What a retirement. On such a high. He took more time than usual to walk off the field at the Wanderers after South Africa convincingly beat Australia this week. In the stands, we saw his father Albert - also a provincial cricket player in his day - and his two-year-old son Arias.
While driving to the Wanderers on that final morning, Morkel promised himself he would enjoy every moment of it.
“I wanted to make the most of my last few hours in a Proteas jersey. That was the fastest a day ever flew by, aside from my wedding day!”
Two days after his retirement, the reality began to kick in.
“The guys are flying to India and life after cricket is knocking on my door. Honestly, it’s scary. But I’ve been preparing myself for this for months. I’m in a happy place,” he says.
On Wednesday, at Cape Town International Airport, you could see Morkel coming from far away. On top of the luggage trolley sits Arias. His legs are already beginning to stretch and he looks just like his father. No, says Morkel, “he has my wife’s looks, but I think the little guy has my soft nature”.
His wife Roz is also tall, but Morkel is a head taller than this former cricket journalist from Australia’s Channel 9.
With parents like these, Arias has already been exposed to the ABCs of throwing a ball.
“It was very important to me that he sees me play before my retirement. That’s where my love of the game began. My father always took us to the cricket, and you really took in that atmosphere.”
Morkel grew up in Vereeniging in Gauteng and can’t remember a time without cricket.
“Me and my brothers Albie and Malan broke dozens of windows and we were a nightmare for my father’s lawn. He tried to grow it with so much love, but we took the lawn mower and cut our own pitches out of it.”
After matric, he went to Pretoria to play for the Titans. Hard times, with little money.
But Morkel says the toughest time in his career was two years ago: “I was battling with my back. To sit in a doctor’s office and to hear him say I had to begin thinking about what I’m going to do after cricket... those are cold words.
“I went and sat in my car and cried, and said to myself: ‘This is not going to get you under. If your heart tells you there is still a little bit of petrol in the tank, you have to follow that voice.’”
People can’t stop talking about how Morkel’s form improved over the past 18 months. The quiet, stable soldier between Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander suddenly emerged as a terminator.
His brother left the best for last, says Albie.
“He bowled more consistent lines and lengths, and also a bit fuller, which forced batsmen to play more of his balls.”
Morkel’s coach, Ottis Gibson, says small adjustments to the bowling action made a difference.
Another reason for his success, Morkel adds, is that he was no longer afraid of failing.
“I just told myself: ‘I’ve been criticised, I know what people think about me. Things can’t get any worse.’ Then I began taking more chances and things began working. And yes, now people are singing a different tune.”
In a career with many ups and downs, Morkel has had a royal quota of criticism. The chirps about that world record of 14 no-balls while taking a wicket... “I cried myself to sleep over those no-balls! I’ve often gone on to the field to prove sports writers wrong. But it’s dangerous because, at the end of the day, you just dig a deeper hole for yourself because you’re not playing for the right reasons.”
People call him the gentle giant. He doesn’t sledge, he doesn’t chirp. His mother Mariana raised her youngest properly.
“Jajaja,” he laughs. “If she sees me being nasty on TV, she lets me have it. She says: ‘Remember that they also have a mother and a father and a conscience!’ So I end up biting my tongue.”
On Friday, we see him in the waves in Muizenberg. This is where he hangs out with Steyn and Faf du Plessis, if they’re not catching fish or playing golf.