One of South Africa’s finest fast bowlers says there’s still plenty of gas left in the tank, writes GARY LEMKE.
Deep inside Morne Morkel, there’s a batsman waiting to get out. ‘It’s one of my cricketing regrets,’ the big man says. ‘I have underachieved as a batsman. I’m not talking about wanting an average of 40, but batting is something I think I could have been better at.’
It’s not unusual for a fast bowler to fancy himself with a willow in his hands, but Morkel has impressive hand-eye co-ordination and hits a long ball off the golf tees, where his handicap has been as a low as a nine. He can even point to opening the innings in a Test match against Australia, convincing then coach Mickey Arthur to take a chance with him when Graeme Smith was injured at the Sydney Cricket Ground in January 2009. In the first innings, Morkel had championed his cause by coming in at No 8 and making a career-high 40 off 134 balls, spending two and a half hours at the crease.
The second-innings experiment was short-lived though, with Morkel chipping Doug Bollinger to mid-wicket for a second-ball duck. But it remains a story for the annals, the day he opened with Neil McKenzie after being promoted up the order ahead of Hashim Amla, Jacques Kallis and AB de Villiers.
Morkel’s batting average after 79 Tests is ‘only’ 12.35, something he puts down to ‘having to work hard to hold my place in the team as a fast bowler. There are so many good fast bowlers coming through, one can never take selection for granted, but it’s always an honour to be selected for South Africa.
‘But I love to contribute with the bat, even down the order, and I take that role seriously. At No’s 8-11 in the order, it’s crucial to add 100 runs to the total. It makes a huge difference to a Test match. And I don’t believe in the “fast bowlers union”, where we must take it easy on one another. I don’t expect to be given any favours when I bat and I don’t want to make it easy for a tail-ender either. I often change to bowling around the wicket to the tail-enders; with my bounce and on the angle I can get to cramp them for room and hopefully get them out.’
Heading into the Test series against India and Australia, the 33-year-old is feeling fresh and fit again, after recovering from a side strain injury sustained against Bangladesh in September. ‘I’m excited to be back. I’m moving well and I’ve been working hard with Dale Steyn in the gym, and we’re both hoping to be able to make a contribution. Dale is such a special person and a great bowler. He’s the one guy who can go from bowling at 135km/h to suddenly changing gear and swinging the ball at 150km/h.’
In watching Morkel in recent times, it seemed he was pitching the ball up more than he did earlier in his career. Was that a valid observation?
‘It is. Because of my bounce, I used to land the ball around 6.5-7m from the stumps. It was often a team tactic. Batsmen generally found it quite difficult to score runs off me when I pitched it shorter, with the bounce, and it helped dry up an end. And that helped Dale and Vernon Philander at the other end.
‘Then Hash [Amla] suggested I try to bowl a bit fuller. He wanted to set straighter fields, so my role was to attack the stumps a bit more and I started pitching the ball up, around 5-5.5m from the stumps. So it was a team tactic and anything that helps the team I’m only too eager to do.’
Morkel will be running his finger down the team lists when India and, later, Australia visit, and stopping at the left-handed batsmen. ‘It’s true that I feel comfortable against left-handers. I grew up in a family of left-handers. My dad, Albert, and two brothers, Malan and Albie, are also left-handed and when we play golf together we turn a few heads. I’m not sure how many times one comes across a fourball of left-handers! But, growing up in that family all I did was bowl to left-handers.’
Therefore it will come as no surprise to see that of his 276 Test wickets, the man he has got out most is former England captain Alastair Cook (12). Joint second on the list is another former England captain, Andrew Strauss, along with Australia’s ‘Mr Cricket’, Mike Hussey. Morkel has got both men out eight times in Test cricket.
In fact, in the list of opponents he has dismissed most, England’s James Anderson, Stuart Broad and Ben Stokes all feature in the top 10, highlighting how effective the 1.96m unit is against lefties. Which means, should Morkel get the opportunity, he’ll be eager to get stuck into India’s Shikhar Dhawan and Australia’s David Warner at the top of the order on home turf in 2018.
Morkel had an impressive 2017, a year in which he was one of the shining lights in an otherwise disappointing time in England. He took 19 wickets in the four Tests to be named South Africa’s Man of the Series and followed it up with 4-70 against Bangladesh on a lifeless track in Potchefstroom before suffering the side strain injury.
And despite featuring in 112 ODIs and 44 T20I matches for South Africa, the fast bowler admits there’s nothing like Test cricket to get the heart pumping. ‘I’m a purist, I love the five-dayers. They’re such an exam of one’s concentration, fitness, form and ability. I don’t know how many Tests have been concluded in the final session of the fifth day over the years, but I think it would surprise a lot of people. That final session is where things can happen so quickly.’
So, how does he feel about the move to four-day Tests, and the pink ball, starting with the Proteas one-off Test against Zimbabwe in Port Elizabeth on Boxing Day?
‘As I said, I’m a purist. I understand that the governors are looking to create more excitement and appeal to new audiences, but I’m not a big fan. I’m not a historian by any stretch of the imagination, and while I admit to looking at statistics and looking for the next milestone to reach, I don’t think four-day Tests should be bracketed with five-day Tests. It becomes a different format, it’s not “Test cricket” as we know it. Are the authorities going to create a whole new set of stats to separate four- and five-day Tests and the pink ball and red ball?’
Morkel, who relocated to Cape Town with his wife three years ago, has learned to listen to his body and look after it as he tries to extend his shelf life as a world-class fast bowler. ‘I’ve taken a lot from Roger Federer and been very interested in seeing how he has managed to prolong his career. He’s what, 36? I don’t know what the future holds and my contract is up for renewal in May 2018, but obviously I’d like to be part of the Proteas ODI squad at the 2019 World Cup. I’ve been part of the squad that has twice been named No 1 Test team in the world and would dearly love to be able to win a World Cup.
‘I’ve changed my gym routines and I do a lot more explosive work instead of just pumping weights. My diet has changed and I’m feeling fit and strong. It’s also been great to have Ottis Gibson come in as coach; in the short time he has been with us, we’ve had a few discussions and he’s already made some tweaks.
‘I find the coaching aspect fascinating and I’m also looking to stay involved in cricket in some shape or form when my career does come to an end. I may be one of the only people Brendan Venter hasn’t blocked on Twitter [laughs], but I read a book he and Gary Kirsten wrote on coaching and I respected and enjoyed Brendan’s input.
‘I’ve also benefited down the years from working with Richard Pybus, Charl Langeveldt, AD [Allan Donald] and now Ottis is on board. Someone else who has had a big influence on me is Mike Horn. In fact, he’s been a long-time mentor for me. And he always says, “When things get a bit too tough or you feel life is hard, get in touch with nature.” Which is what I do. I’m passionate about the outdoors and nature, and when I see abnormal events like the orcas taking out the great white sharks at Gansbaai, I think it has something to do with bigger nature forces at play.’
While chatting to Morkel in a Cape Town coffee shop, one thing that becomes apparent – and it’s an increasing rarity – is his phone is nowhere in sight. He’s fully engaged and committed to the interview and he hasn’t locked himself into a specific time limit. That doesn’t mean he isn’t connected to the modern world, one in which social media and fake news are the order of the day.
He has a Twitter following of just short of a million – slightly behind brother Albie (987 000), on a list of South African cricketers headed by De Villiers (5.25-million), Steyn (2.74m), Faf du Plessis (1.27m), JP Duminy (1.16m) and Amla (1.1m). ‘I don’t tweet that often, but when I do it’s for a reason. I also like following people I can gain something from, it’s not just mindless clickbait. When in a cricket camp or on tour, it’s a good way to take one’s mind off the cricket.’
So, by looking at the types of people one follows on Twitter, perhaps we can get an insight into what makes Morne Morkel tick?
Golf: ‘Yes, I enjoy golf. I was in the same class as Charl Schwartzel at Hoërskool Vereeniging right up to Grade 11. His parents then took him out of school to do homeschooling. The headmaster told us, “Schwartzel is going to regret not coming back to class.” The next year, Charl’s brother was in one of the lower grades and I was in matric, and the next thing we knew Charl arrived to pick up his brother in a sponsored Mercedes. So much for regret!’
Religion: ‘Yes, I’m religious.’
Surfing, sharks: ‘I love being on my board and Dale is also a big surfer. And I mentioned the orcas and great whites.’
Politics: ‘The world is in quite an interesting place politically at the moment …’
Crime: ‘It’s a big problem in South Africa. I’m a patriot and just wish our crime rates would drop. I’m always asked about it and safety issues when on tour or playing overseas.’ Cooking: ‘I can hold my own in the kitchen and obviously coming from the Highveld and now being in Cape Town I’m a braaimaster compared to the locals [laughs].’
Richard Stirton: ‘I saw him on The Voice and got in contact with him. I told him I thought he could win. I’ve subsequently been to a few of his concerts.’
Beer, Castle Lager: ‘I always start off with a beer before going on to wine.’
Camping, adventure, Bear Grylls: ‘Say no more!’
Conor McGregor: ‘I knew he would lose against Floyd Mayweather but he helped hype that fight. He was so arrogant and confident in the buildup. We were on tour and Simon Harmer and Dane Vilas were also into the buildup, so we had a lot of banter about it.’
And there you have it. A cricketing fast bowler but also one of life’s all-rounders. Welcome back Morne, we’ve missed you.