“Morkel leaves the field behind a cricketer who could have achieved more, much more but knowing him, he will just be glad to walk away being known as one of the greatest team-men”.
Farewells are hard. Adieus are tough. But isn’t it easy to pour out all of one’s emotions when the individual walking away has held an irreplaceable spot within us? We know they shall be missed. We remember their highest days and the days when they left an ever-lasting impact. We look back with nostalgia at the glory days and the moments that brought a smile. With tears and a warmness, we watch them walk away whilst we remain engulfed in reminiscence and awe at their deeds, achievements and memories.
But something felt different the day Morne Morkel announced his retirement. The dreaded day for all cricketers and athletes. The day, when a long, never-ending chapter finally meets its inevitable ending. A novel that has gone on and on, getting layered in dust and gathering the tinge of nimbleness and yellowness that is loved by all. Some pages turn over with a creak, whilst others contain within them the sun-dried roses of yesteryears, which had been savoured, to be glanced at when the final leaf has been turned. A blank paper is all that awaits.
Hours before sitting at the press-conference hall that had been called to announce his retirement, Morkel would have looked back over the writings in his manuscript and maybe sighed. Not a sigh that was a by-product of relief. It was a sigh of admission. Of acceptance. And of heartbreak. He had been blessed and terribly privileged to be a part of the Proteas dressing room for well over 12 years but when it came to a career-defining moment and an instance that was just his own, he fell short. Yes, there had been many victories that he had commemorated and many more achievements that he had enjoyed – some his, some of the others – but he did know, that in a group of superstars, he had not been able to cement a place like a Steyn or an AB de Villiers had.
But Morkel was never meant to be Steyn-like. In a team and in a group, some beings are thrust into the limelight, while others have to do the “donkey work” behind the curtains, sans attention. They have to set others up and the team for success, knowing well that when it does eventually come around, they will hardly be spoken about around the media circles.
And so, Morkel carried on helping the bowler at the other end pick up the wickets by creating pressure on the batsmen and pushing them on the backfoot. By not going fuller and sticking to a back of a length delivery that hardly attacked them, he was setting the stage perfectly for bowlers like Steyn, Makhaya Ntini and Vernon Philander to attack, which resulted in them getting bountiful of wickets. It was not that he was behind the wickets tally, for he did become only the fifth South African to scalp up 300 Test wickets, but he too knows that the numbers could have been higher.
Steyn, in 86 Tests has 419 wickets and he, in 85 stands at 306. His strike-rate is 53.4 and his average, 27.7. Kagiso Rabada, in comparison, for whom Morkel has had to change his short-length bowling tactics as the youngster’s action was like his, has 140 wickets in 29 games, with an average of 21.56. But maybe the biggest proof of Morkel’s unheralded presence is that while Rabada, who is in his third year of international cricket has nine 5-wicket hauls and four ten-wicket match hauls, Morkel just has eight fifers and no ten-wickets yet in twelve years. To say then, that the Transvaal player has been under the radar for almost throughout his career, would be an understatement.
His large heartedness can be sensed from the fact that even when he was dropped in the second Test in his farewell series for Lungi Ngidi, he returned in the third, with as much eagerness – his spirit devoid of the brooding sulkiness that would have enveloped another who had been meted with a similar treatment.
During the controversy-marred Cape Town Test, Morkel was asked what his favourite memory will be when he looks back at his career, and pat came the reply.
“Every time I have the ball is special to me.”
The words, though implicitly stating the love-affair that the elder Morkel has with cricket, contained within it an underlying pathos and a deep-rooted sadness when one realised that the fast-bowler will walk away into the horizon with a dissatisfaction over a playing career that did not even bless him with his own moment in the sun. A moment, when it was only him and his performance that overlooked the vast expanse and a day when the birds chirped aloud Morkel’s praise. Though he hid the pain, destiny somewhere heard his silent wishes and set along to give the silent hero a fitting farewell.
He had already picked up 4 wickets in the first innings, and when Morkel returned to the field in the second, a mood of disdain and jeering had descended over the ground. The Table Top was almost like an angry figure frowning down at the Australians and it was here that Morkel was soon to arrive. From no wickets in 4 overs, he galloped to 5 wickets in the next 5.4. He had Steven Smith caught at gully and found himself on a hat-trick when he had two fierce deliveries get Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins in two deliveries. Before he had sent Mitchell Marsh packing and it was only befitting that the 6 foot 5-inch bowler finished off the proceedings with Josh Hazlewood’s wicket to hand South Africa an unassailable lead in the series.
The celebrations and the animated expressions showed it off. He enthusiastically waved at the crowd. He shed tears of joy and he revelled in his first nine-wicket haul. He screamed in ecstasy and did not shy away from capturing the limelight. On the day, it was his. He had long remained in the shadows of his illustrious mates, but Newlands presented him with a magical moment, that soon became the highlight of his career.
“Today is the highlight of my life. If I get asked the question again, what is your most memorable or special moment, the answer will definitely be today.”
Morkel leaves the field behind a cricketer who could have achieved more, much more but knowing him, he will just be glad to walk away being known as one of the greatest team-men. Faf du Plessis, in calling him the motherly-figure in the team possibly gave him his biggest compliment, and somewhere in the crowds, an injured Steyn, adorned in Morkel’s jersey, was aware that his successes would have remained incomplete without the character of Morkel to accompany him at the other end. And that will forever be his outstanding legacy.