Big Morne: Is this the time of his life?

Morne Morkel (Gallo)
Morne Morkel (Gallo)

Cape Town – Those who remember the heyday of the Transvaal “Mean Machine” should also recall how productively at times Neal Radford fed off the assault and battery of strike partner Sylvester Clarke.

Batsmen in the former Currie Cup would understandably be so intent on simply seeing off the fearsome Barbadian with his track-the-temple short ball that they would instead target the wily, late away-swing of Zimbabwean-born Radford for their runs – with the frequent result of simply nicking off to the gleeful hands of wicketkeeper Ray Jennings or fly-catcher Alan Kourie at first slip.

It would, often enough, also mean that Radford could eclipse the burly “Sly” for statistical destructiveness in the wickets column.

There are certain similarities, arguably, when it comes to Morne Morkel’s long-time role in Test matches for the Proteas.

In short, he is their “Clarke” to a good extent, more often than not targeting the batsman’s upper body for softening-up purposes while others – the instinctively fuller-length Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander particularly regular beneficiaries down the years – get greedily busy in dismissals terms.

It must be tough work bending your back in the manner Morkel so willingly does, which probably goes some way to explaining why he has tended to be more of a “three-for” factor than a bowler constantly hogging the headlines with five-wicket hauls and more.

After all, his first-innings 5/21 in the two-day pulverising of Zimbabwe at St George’s Park this week was just his seventh in 80 Tests … a conversion rate, if you like, that is not remotely in the same league as veteran ally Steyn’s (as many as 26 five-fors in 85).

Morkel used to frustratingly veer a little too much, perhaps, toward over-predictability in his approach to bowling in Test matches, sticking as much as he could to his back-of-a-length comfort zone.

But since returning to international duty from an absence not unlike Steyn’s for severity of injury – a bulging disc in his back in late 2016 that some experts felt should have ended his career – the now 33-year-old Morkel continues to look a progressively more rounded, wiser customer.

Clearly a popular figure in the dressing room – never under-estimate that factor as a general team enhancer – the new-look Morkel is far more of a model of consistency and pressure application than he once was, when too many “release” deliveries helped batsmen feel much better about themselves while facing the man who delivers from such a formidable height.

He is also, crucially, mixing up his lengths a lot more, something that was pleasingly evident when he effectively led the Proteas attack for the lion’s share of the problematic, surrendered series in England earlier this year.

Minus Steyn throughout it and with Philander and Kagiso Rabada also having interrupted series for differing reasons, Morkel grafted ceaselessly and determinedly over the course of the four Tests, earning a highly praiseworthy 19 wickets despite the 3-1 reverse.

Morkel’s new-found “no let-up” approach was only in evidence again, whatever you may mumble about the limitations of the opposition, in the PE crushing of the Proteas’ neighbours.

He was a handful under lights with the pink ball but virtually as merciless under the blazing sun against the Zimbabweans, some of whom showed a discernible lack of stomach for the fight, particularly when the beanpole – whose conditioning looks in fine fettle too -- was steaming in.

Former national captain Kepler Wessels has seen plenty of Morkel in his capacity as a SuperSport commentary stalwart, and noted during the Friendly City contests: “He (Morkel) spent a long time just being the enforcer for South Africa, but that has gradually (changed).

“He used to just float through his fuller delivery; now he hits the pitch harder with it, and is getting more wickets.

“Batsmen are having to play a lot more against him. His confidence is right up and there’s been good rhythm to him, going back to the Bangladesh series.”

The Vereeniging-born paceman seems a certainty to play the glamour first Test against India at Newlands from next Friday, despite the relative riches in that department potentially available to the Proteas by then.

He may very well be in the best and most sustained form of his Test life, stretching back to debut against the very same foes at Kingsmead in December 2006.

With three Tests against India looming, and then a further blue-chip four also at home against Australia before the summer has run its course, that is a convenient development for South Africa.

Morkel, remember, is only 19 scalps away from becoming just the fifth South African – after Shaun Pollock (421), Steyn (417), Makhaya Ntini (390) and Allan Donald (330) – to get to 300 Test wickets.

After some grave, fitness-related doubts a year or so ago, it seems far likelier a matter of “when” than “if” for the durable competitor in hitting the landmark.

And just imagine the further, lucrative possibilities if Big Morne, increasingly adding subtlety to his more renowned short-delivery sting, blossoms more and more into a combination (at least of sorts) of Clarke and Radford in his twilight phase for South Africa …

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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