Mar 1, 2014
Mitchell Johnson had terrorized England in the Ashes a few months back and Australia had arrived in South Africa with Johnson as intimidating as ever.
But South Africa had a weapon of their own in Morne Morkel. Taking a cue from Johnson, Morkel rampaged in from around the wicket to Michael Clarke in the third Cape Town Test and bruised him all over with short-pitched deliveries. Morkel was at his terrorizing best, bouncing him, hitting him on the ribs and getting him into all kinds of uncomfortable positions.
Clarke couldn’t pull, looked dazed and Morkel was just all over him and the Aussies. But at the end of the day, Clarke had a game-changing 161 to his name and Morkel had zilch in the wickets column in his 23.5 overs. The scorecard would never show how menacing Morkel was that day. It would, in fact, show him as South Africa’s worst bowler.
There is a thing about intimidating bowlers in cricket. You could constantly hit the helmet grille, make the batsmen nervy and scared but at the end of it all, he could duck or away from his way out of everything or take all the blows until the bowler is tired of the effort and gets taken off the attack.
Think Wahab Riaz against Shane Watson in the 2015 World Cup. Riaz was in a class of his own against Watson and the Aussie was absolutely clueless in dealing with the bowler. Pakistan’s fielders did not help matters either by dropping Watson. The scorecard, though, shows Shane Watson 64(66) while Riaz has 9-0-54-2.
When you constantly bump batsmen you are hoping he goes for a pull or hook from above his eyeline and top edges it to a fielder or gets scared and moves onto the back-foot while a fuller one next ball gets him. There is a reliance on fielders, the batsmen getting the hook wrong and a lot of other things in the first scenario. In the second, you are just setting him up with the short stuff. It is the full ball that eventually gives you the wicket.
Morne Morkel has, for long, been termed an unlucky bowler. He lived in the shadows of Dale Steyn and though they were hailed as a pair, Morkel never took centre-stage as a bowler. He was intimidating, scary, pacy and would set the batsman up for Dale Steyn to take the wickets.
In cricket, while it is important to hunt in pairs, the individual records matter too and the moment Steyn started getting injured more often, Morkel, with his shorter, back-of-the-length deliveries started becoming less threatening in terms of taking wickets.
“Most of my career, I have missed Lady Luck a few times. But, like I said, with my style of bowling, in a way I am bowling for one [type of] dismissal, which is caught behind because I get a lot of bounce off the wicket. If you asked me to get an lbw or bowled, that is a little bit against me. Freddie Flintoff was one guy I spoke two years ago in the UK about fast bowling, and he said to me, I must just realise that if it is my day and make it count, and if it is not, to make sure I create pressure for other guys”, Morkel had revealed about his role in the side.
He was bludgeoned on flat wickets by thick bats and T20-honed batsmen and Morkel had no answers. His forte was to land it short and set the batsman up. But the fuller one never came right from Morkel. It had gone unnoticed for a while ’cause Steyn would eventually unfurl carnage at the other end. But Morkel, without Steyn, was on the verge of being dropped, especially with Kagiso Rabada, a bowler who could be as intimidating as him and bowl a fuller length, available and in form.
“I get a lot of bounce, and I want to use that as much as possible. I get criticised a lot for bowling the wrong lengths, but the thing people don’t understand is, I am not a swing bowler. If I go fuller, I don’t swing the ball, so it is actually a free hit for the batsmen”, Morkel had said in an interview a year back.
What he probably didn’t realise was that he did have the ability to seam and move the ball with a much fuller length and coming from his height, it made the ball even more threatening. In the last one year or so, Morkel, particularly under du Plessis’ captaincy, has been given the new ball in Tests. He did not have that luxury when Steyn and Philander were present.
Morkel promptly switched to a fuller length and the results have been eye-catching. In England, he was South Africa’s best bowler with 19 wickets in four Tests, beating the bat innumerable times and putting England batsmen in all kinds of trouble. Many expected the short stuff from him, which did come occasionally, but it was the fuller one that fetched him the wickets.
In New Zealand, a series prior to that, he had 11 in three games and at home against Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Zimbabwe yesterday, he picked up 17 in 5 matches. All of this came at a much better strike rate and average than his career one.
Having the brand new cherry in hand might have played a role in Morkel resorting to a fullish length but the point is that he can be as menacing as any seam bowler in the World when he gets it right. On Tuesday, he showed just why when he scythed through Zimbabwe’s top-order with an exhibition of seam bowling.
He had Hamilton Mazakadza trapped in front of the first ball before proceeding to beat the bat so many times until finally eking out an edge from Chamu Chibhabha. Brendon Taylor was next. Looking befuddled by Morkel’s sudden zip and rhythm, Taylor pushed at a fuller one to nick through to AB de Villiers behind the stumps. By stumps of the first day of the four-day Test, Zimbabwe were 30/4 and Morkel had figures of 7-2-20-3.
Under lights, he moved the ball around, pushed Zimbabwe to the edge and was more threatening than Vernon Philander on a pitch tailor-made for the latter. It speaks volumes about the change Morkel has adopted in his approach and how it works for him.
Suddenly, he isn’t very similar to Rabada anymore. And when India arrive in January, South Africa wouldn’t think twice to unleash a four-pronged seam attack with Morkel and Philander taking the new ball and Steyn and Rabada backing up. How intimidating would that be? All four of them have totally different skill-sets now but going by Morkel’s recent form, he is primed to be India’s biggest challenge.