Cape Town – A sound bowling performance at a traditionally favourite venue over the next few days could see Chris Morris transform himself into a more staple feature of the remoulding Proteas Test team than some people imagine.
It is at his main trade that the lanky customer will be judged the most closely – assuming he is not an unexpected omission from the XI, of course – in the third Test against England at the Wanderers from Thursday.
Rightly so, too ... the host nation no longer have the luxury of a fully-fledged all-rounder in their team, a situation that seems unlikely to alter any time soon, so they have to constantly ensure their only four-strong specialist attack, post-Jacques Kallis, is loaded with the best possible personnel for the job.
Competition will only crank up on that front when the likes of Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander return from respective injury absenteeism; their combined problems have significantly reduced South Africa’s firepower in the series thus far.
Morris has won a place in the side strongly, you suspect, on the grounds that he the closest thing to a like-for-like replacement for the latter, who was the previous occupant of the No 8 batting spot and a credible “bridge” in that capacity between the frontline batsmen and the tail.
Whenever they don’t or can’t field a player with the staunchness at the crease of either Morris or Philander in that berth, the Proteas’ tail only swells significantly, always giving opponents the hope that if they can make early inroads into the top- and middle-order, the dregs, to put it a little unkindly, can be exposed and skittled pretty quickly.
Without any disrespect to players like Steyn (Test batting average 14.11), Morne Morkel (11.67), Kagiso Rabada (8.00), Kyle Abbott (5.37) and Dane Piedt (4.00), England are proving tougher to bowl out collectively twice for the very reason that their “eight to 11” features such accomplished batsmen as Moeen Ali (26.84) and Stuart Broad (23.35).
It is a bit early to start pontificating too deeply on the competence or otherwise with the blade of Rabada and Piedt, for instance, considering how raw they remain in overall Test experience terms, but early signs aren’t hugely rosy based on available evidence at the crease.
Attempting to put a lid on South Africa’s back-end vulnerability – exposed earlier in India, too -- must have formed at least part of the motivation for the national selectors to draft in Morris slightly against the odds for the New Year Test at Newlands.
It really was a baptism of fire for the debutant over the first two days of that match, as England went comfortably past the 600-mark after winning the toss and Morris was pounded more mercilessly than most during the Stokes-Bairstow mayhem: completed figures of 1/150 in your first bowling innings for your country hardly amount to a rousing start.
While he was leaking runs all too generously, some of the less forgiving television commentators already began questioning whether Morris, 28, really offered “enough” in skill and variation to cut the mustard at Test level.
It was a fear that might well have sparked a dissenting voice or two from those who do microphone duty on the domestic franchise circuit, and have seen him think and improvise – not to mention perform -- his way deftly through plenty of games at that level.
That lobby would have been less surprised, then, to witness his wholly improved, much more cutting-edge contribution in England’s shaky second knock when the possibility of defeat beckoned for the tourists in an unlikely sting to the drawn game’s tail.
Not only did Morris start to show an ability to generate orthodox and reverse swing, but he seemed to tick a pleasing box for sturdy temperament and “bouncebackability”.
In between, too, his versatility had come very forcefully to prominence in a batting capacity: Temba Bavuma might very well not have reached his poignant century had it not been for former Lions’ team-mate Morris’s assured support role over the course of some 40 overs as he registered a highly satisfying 69 himself.
It was exactly the kind of prolonged tail-end resistance that has generally been lacking from SA teams since people like Shaun Pollock, Lance Klusener, Nicky Boje and Robin Peterson quit or were omitted from the Test arena; there have been a few too many “bunnies” at times since.
Yes, Philander will directly threaten – and probably grab -- Morris’s lower-order all-rounder spot anew when passed fit for five-day combat again, but he turns 31 just before midyear so sooner or later there will be a gap again anyway; like Steyn, the popular Ravensmead product is starting to show wear and tear signs from years on the cricketing treadmill.
There are also the benefits of Morris’s slip catching to consider, even if selectors are hardly going to pick someone for a Test team simply on the grounds that he is an unfailing fly-catcher in that region.
But his pair of blistering grabs in the Newlands Test – one on either side of his tall frame – did provide ammunition for suggesting that, if he can somehow settle into the side, he helps re-equip a department that has not fully recovered yet after shedding the trusty presence of Messrs Kallis and Graeme Smith.
Pundit and former England captain Mike Atherton was not slow to notice Morris’s catching prowess, noting that he looks an ideal customer for second or third slip with what he called his “big wingspan”.
Clearly the selectors are well aware that when you pick Morris, you are introducing more than just another fast-medium bowling factor to your arsenal; he brings a bigger box of tricks than that, increasing his attractiveness to the broad cause.
Now he just has to bowl out of his skin – or almost so – if handed a second cap at the Bullring over the next few days.
He’s certainly done it there before, albeit mostly one competitive tier down ...
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