Zim: Morkel to continue climb?

Morné Morkel  (Gallo Images)
Morné Morkel (Gallo Images)
Cape Town - It will not have escaped the attention of Morné Morkel, closing in on his 30th birthday in October, that over the past couple of years he has slipped down the international rankings as a Test bowler.

Once a pretty regular, comfortable “top tenner” - and with a career high of third in late 2010 - the lanky pace bowler currently lies a slightly disappointing 16th on the ICC list, certainly having rather lost sight of highly-touted compatriots Dale Steyn (still safely at the helm of the pack) and fourth-placed Vernon Philander.

This places him below such fast-bowling rivals on the global circuit as Ryan Harris (nearest threat to the Phalaborwa Express at the top), Mitchell Johnson and Peter Siddle of Australia, England’s James Anderson and Stuart Broad, and even representatives of more unsung Test sides like New Zealand’s Tim Southee and Trent Boult and West Indian strike factor Kemar Roach.

The bowler himself, and doubtless others in South Africa, may well suspect that Morkel, now a relative veteran of 58 Test matches, is a better player than the rankings currently suggest he is.

His decline to terrain below the cream of Test seamers, if you like, has been gradual yet still noticeable, and borne out by the fact that it is 29 innings since he last registered a five-wicket haul - against Australia at Adelaide Oval in November 2012, a series the Proteas later won 1-0.

When the Aussies later returned, last summer, to South African shores and conditions that occasionally seemed tailor-made for Morkel’s back-of-a-length menace, he was thoroughly eclipsed by the visiting assassin Johnson as the Baggy Greens snatched the revenge spoils 2-1.

Morkel had one memorable stint of grievous bodily harm aimed at Australian captain Michael Clarke at Newlands, but the fact still remained after the dust settled that he did not bag his prey - Clarke got an unbeaten 161 in the tourists’ first innings - and his series average was a poorly 63.50.

That series, in fact, was just another reason why Morkel’s overall Test average has fallen below the relative benchmark figure of 30 (presently he sports 201 wickets at 30.08).

In Sri Lanka very recently, however, and on pitches that this time barely suited his known strengths, the beanpole played two Test matches of welcome, back-to-back personal intensity, having a major role in South Africa’s slightly unexpected and praiseworthy 1-0 victory.

He only narrowly failed to register an overdue “five-for” on the short tour, getting four-wicket hauls in the Sri Lankan second innings at both Galle and Colombo and 12 wickets in total at a fantastic average of 16.00 and economy rate of 2.82.

That average was his best in any series (there have 23 in total) he has been involved in since debut against India in the Kingsmead Boxing Day Test of 2006.

On Sri Lankan strips and in weather that sometimes might have excused the faster men for going a little off the boil, Morkel pretty much kept his focus and mojo throughout, bowling at good pace but also showing refreshing skill.

He varied his lengths judiciously at times, perhaps against his established instincts, without sacrificing control.

Twice he accounted for left-handed dangerman Kumar Sangakkara, and once in the series his right-handed partner in traditional destruction, Mahela Jayawardene.

The dangerously callow Zimbabweans in Harare, in a once-off Test from Saturday, provides an opportunity for Morkel to quickly pick up where he left off on the Subcontinent ... and thus continue his claw-back to better real estate on the ICC rankings.

Of course he will not be the only Proteas bowler wishing to greedily cash in on the home side’s minnow status, especially given that all of the SA team, barring AB de Villiers, will be encountering these foes at Test level for the novel first time.

But he can issue a further reminder that his general graph is headed back northward again after a dicey period ...

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing
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