Cape Town – Hugely more experienced for the lion’s share of the Test series against England than any other bowling colleague, Morne Morkel was earmarked upfront as rather obvious new leader of the Proteas’ attack.
With only a fleeting appearance at the start of the four-Test series by Dale Steyn and none at all by the other member of the old-firm pace triumvirate, Vernon Philander, the lanky customer towered above anyone else in the home bowling arsenal for number of caps; the dead-rubber closing Test at SuperSport Park is his 71st.
But Morkel has blown hot and cold -- a phenomenon that has certainly stalked him before -- during the summer’s combat for the Basil D’Oliveira Trophy, already snatched away by the tourists.
That is evidenced by his record with one day to go at Centurion and South Africa pushing hard for a consolation victory: 13 wickets at an average of 32.46.
Those stats hardly amount to a train smash but they don’t come with a great deal of “wow” factor, either.
In conditions richly familiar to him and occasionally pretty favourable from a bounce point of view to his trade, it is a little disappointing that three England seamers, Stuart Broad (20.61), Steven Finn (26.09) and the all-rounder Ben Stokes (29.16) stood above the Vereeniging-born beanpole at the time of writing.
Morkel’s average is also below his own career one of 29.47, and with just Tuesday left in the series, he is being notably upstaged by fresh-faced team-mate Kagiso Rabada who is one tantalising dismissal shy of pipping Broad to finish as leading wicket-taker across the two teams.
Rabada, helped by a further two strikes before Monday’s close to add to his much-celebrated 7/112 in England’s first knock, boasts 18 wickets at 25.83.
Just one more would additionally make the 20-year-old just the 14th bowler in Test history to bag 10 poles or more in a single match before turning 21, as well as first South African.
The list is headed by Bangladesh’s Enamul Haque jnr, who recorded 12/200 against Zimbabwe at Dhaka in 2005 at 18 years and 40 days.
While they often say that decent, pressure-building quality from a head-hunter at the other end indirectly aids a bowler’s productivity in the wickets column, Rabada has frequently outshone the much more streetwise Morkel for both discipline and skill over the past few weeks.
The more senior man looked as though he could have a really major influence on the England series after the impressive way he went about his business, on pitches light years from his comfort zone, in the previous one in India. (Mind you, so did the callow Rabada.)
But Morkel has struggled for general consistency and harmonious rhythm more recently, with commentator Ian Botham pointing out that the frequency with which he has “lost” his run-up is a sure sign of that drawback.
Frankly, we might have also expected a few more spiteful spells from Morkel – remember the concertedly fierce way he once bombed Australia’s Michael Clarke at Newlands? – in a current series that has been surprisingly “nice” all round.
Still, Morkel does boast the key double snaring of England skipper Alastair Cook at Centurion, and there are still seven wickets left for him to get among if the Proteas are to earn the welcome tonic of a first win in 10 Tests.
I fancy Morkel may just need a couple, too, if he is to stay a first-teamer in Test terms once Messrs Steyn and Philander are fit again -- all going well -- for the next series against New Zealand in the early spring.
Rabada looks in it for the long haul, and with their records both Steyn and Philander should walk back into the mix fairly effortlessly ... under such a scenario, Morkel is naturally rather endangered, especially if South Africa stick to their much-debated three-seamers-only formula.
The 31-year-old’s right to a place in both the ODI and Twenty20 mix at present is largely beyond doubt, I think; he has become admirably reliable and frequently an important game-tilter, especially in the 50-overs landscape.
Tests? There things suddenly look a bit more tenuous.
He may be conscious of that as the Proteas go in for a determined kill on Tuesday ...
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