Morne Morkel, born on October 6, 1984, is part of the South Africa’s pace troika – the others being Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander – that has been striking terror in cricket grounds around the world. Morkel’s imposing heights helps him generate disconcerting bounce. Combined with the pace at which he bowls, Morkel is lethal. Nishad Pai Vaidya profiles the tall South African’s unfinished career.
There is always a certain thrill in watching a tall fast-bowler bang it in short and trouble batsmen with steep bounce. Morne Morkel is one such modern bowler who can send jitters down the spine of the opposition with his thunderbolts.
Born in Vereeniging, South Africa on October 6, 1984, Morkel grew up in a sporting family. His father Albert was a First-Class cricketer and two elder brothers, Malan and Albie also took to the sport very early. Albie told CricketCountry in an interview: “Interestingly, Morne only grew into the big man he is today, later on in his life. As a youngster, he was very thin and wasn’t very strong. So it was quite easy to boss him around! Little did we know then that he would turn into one of the best fast bowlers in the game. Our elder brother, Malan was also a very good cricketer. As kids we had our backyard ‘Test matches’ and you can only imagine how intense they were. Many hours were spent playing cricket and many tears were shed. Of course, let us not to talk about the broken windows!”
Growing up in that atmosphere, it was obvious that Morkel would take up the sport seriously. In 2004, he made his First-Class debut at the age of 19 for the Easterns against the touring West Indians. It was the same year where his elder brother Albie made his international debut. Within a year of making his debut, he made it to the Titans side as he first played for them in 2005. Considering his talent and consistency, he was spoken of as an option for the South African side. At the time, Shaun Pollock, Makhaya Ntini and Dale Steyn were the frontline pacemen for them. Then you had Andre Nel and Charl Langeveldt waiting in the wings. Breaking in wasn’t the easiest task.
However, when India toured in 2006, he was picked for The Rest. In the tour game against India, he took four for 74 in the first innings to make an impression ahead of the Test series. The four men he dismissed were all quality players — Virender Sehwag, Sachin Tendulkar, VVS Laxman and Mahendra Singh Dhoni. He was picked for the second Test at Durban when Steyn was injured. On debut, he not only impressed with the ball, but also made a significant contribution with the bat. He scored an unbeaten 31 in the first essay to help South Africa post over 300. Later on, he played a pivotal role in taking the lead as he took three wickets to bowl India out for 240. Despite the impressive outings, he had to bide his time when Steyn returned for the next game.
In the meanwhile, he did make his One-Day International (ODI), not for South Africa, but while playing for Africa XI against Asia in the Afro-Asia Cup in 2007. On the unhelpful sub-continental tracks, he was hit for runs, but he did manage to take wickets and prove his value. As a result, he was picked for the South African one-day side later in the year and made his debut for them against Zimbabwe. He was also a part of their squad for the ICC World T20 2007. There, he showed how his abilities could be effective in the shortest format as well.
In 2008, Morkel returned to the Test side during the tour to Bangladesh. During his comeback Test at Dhaka, he delivered a spell of five for 50. As the years progressed, Morkel went on to become a vital part of the South African sides. He formed a lethal combination with Steyn and they complement each other with their contrasting styles. They played big roles in South Africa’s away wins in recent times. During the tour to England in 2008, he took seven wickets in the match at Leeds to help South Africa win. At Edgbaston as well, Morkel picked up four crucial wickets in the second innings as South Africa were trying restrict England so that they could chase a small total in the fourth innings.
There was a slight stutter in form in 2009, but Morkel returned charged up. Ironically, his brother Albie made his Test debut against Australia at Cape Town in 2009 at his expense. But, against England in 2009-10, he returned to form. Since then, he has established himself as South Africa’s strike-bowler across formats. Even on surfaces that aren’t exactly known to suit fast-bowling, he can be a handful. Take the example of the spell of five for 54 against Pakistan at Dubai, where runs were on offer. Or, his sterling performance during the Indian Premier League (IPL) 2012 for the Delhi Daredevils, where he finished as the Purple Cap holder. In one particular game, he came into bowl the penultimate over with Rajasthan Royals needing 15 to win. He then outsmarted Brad Hodge and conceded only three runs before getting him leg-before. Delhi went on to steal victory from that position. But, a striking feature during that campaign was his ability to bowl the yorkers with accuracy. From the tall frame, it was even tougher to pick those toe-crushers.
Morkel keeps striking with the new ball and is an asset to any side. He backs his strengths and can trouble the best in the world with the steep bounce he can extract. That is what puts him in a different league in the modern bowlers. To face him in full flow is not something batsman would want. Even in the one-day game, he has this knack of dominating the batsmen. India found that out during their tour in 2010-11 as he took the Man of the Series Award for his 12 wickets in the five-match series. But, his most destructive spell came against Sri Lanka in 2012, when he took four for 10 at Paarl. At one stage, Sri Lanka were nine for five and were ultimately bowled out for 43. He then took his first fifer in ODIs on the tour to New Zealand in 2012.
As far as the Test side is concerned, he has been one of the factors in South Africa’s rise to the top spot in the Test rankings. Time and again, he has produced devastating spells. Steyn and Morkel now have another partner-in-crime, Vernon Philander. It is a dynamic pace attack and has all the elements a captain would need. In Steyn, you have the complete fast-bowler who bowls thunderous pace and swings it as well. Morkel is the one who bangs it in short and bounces the batsmen out. Philander employs subtle variations that teases the batsmen.
When this battery first got together at Cape Town against Australia, it was sheer carnage. In the second essay, Australia were infamously bowled out for 47 in the second innings. While Philander stole the show with his five-wicket haul, Morkel wasn’t too far behind with a spell of three nine (to go with three for 82 in the first innings).
As South Africa ascended to the top, this attack’s role grew. At Wellington in 2012, Morkel almost single-handedly won South Africa a Test match. Chasing 389 in the fourth innings, Morkel gave New Zealand some tough moments with a spell of six for 23. New Zealand held on for a draw.
Later, during the tour of England in 2012, South Africa fulfilled their dream of becoming the best Test side in the world. Morkel played critical roles in both their victories — at The Oval and Lord’s. At The Oval, his spell of four for 72 laid the foundation of a win as Hashim Amla and company built on that advantage by punishing the England bowlers. At Lord’s, in the decider, Morkel took four for 80 in the first-innings which didn’t allow England to take a big lead. South Africa then setup a huge target and went on to win the series and steal the top spot.
But, Graeme Smith’s South Africans needed more. Australia had to be conquered again in late 2012. In what was a tough series; South Africa emerged stronger thanks to their team effort. At Adelaide in the second Test, Morkel ensured they saved the game in dramatic circumstances. After picking eight wickets in the run-fest of a match (eight for 196, which remains his best in Tests), Morkel had to bat during the nervous fifth evening. South Africa were chasing 430, but a draw was on their minds. Morkel stayed with Faf du Plessis during the critical overs and took the Proteas to safety. He can bat a bit as well! South Africa went to win the next Test at Perth and won the series, where Morkel did not pick too many wickets, but kept the runs in check.
At the age of 29, Morkel is still building his reputation and is well poised to walk amongst the best fast-bowlers South Africa has produced. If he maintains his consistency and persists with his attacking style of bowling, nothing can stop him.
Morne Morkel’s international career in numbers:
In pictures: Morne Morkel’s career