South Africa's unsung performer
Morne Morkel put so much effort into the first ball of his fifth over that he tumbled onto the pitch, limbs sprawled out like a box of spilled toothpicks. He gathered himself up without the slightest embarrassment and in the moments it took him to walk back to his mark and complete his trademark half-circle to restart his run-up, he hatched a plan.
For the next 14 balls, Morkel peppered Michael Hussey with the vigour of a salt shaker. His length got shorter, his line tighter and he zoned in on the area just outside the off stump. With each ball, Hussey's game plan was more doused in doubt. He left the third ball but saw it pass so close to the stumps that he had a tentative prod at the fifth and an awkward attempt at defending the sixth.
The edge simply had to come. When it did, Morkel was rewarded for a consistent tactic and Australia's resistance had just about crumbled. Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander and Robin Peterson bookended Morkel's solitary scalp, and the efforts of the other bowlers have more chance of getting into the highlights' package than Morkel's sustained attempt. However, those two-and-a-half overs should be archived in Morkel's personal library because they represent the progress he has made this year.
Previously, watching Morkel bowl was like stepping into a new hotel-room shower. If you get a bad one, it could spoil the whole experience no matter how fancy the establishment. If you get a good one with a solid flow at the right pressure, it can leave you feeling close to perfect. Not knowing which you are going to get is like waiting to see what Morkel did.
In March this year, against New Zealand, Morkel gave reason to believe that the nervous waits would become fewer and now that December has dawned they have all but disappeared. Morkel has been South Africa's best bowler of the series because he has been their most consistent. He created pressure and sustained it, at times on his own, and routinely clocked the fastest speeds. Allan Donald said in England that Morkel had found his "mongrel," and the puppy has grown.
The first signs of Morkel's new, nasty aggression came at Basin Reserve in Wellington. South Africa had set New Zealand a target of 389 and were intent on finishing them off. Morkel had already broken his Delhi Daredevils team-mate Ross Taylor's arm in the first innings, when he hit him with a fierce bouncer, but he was not done. He ripped through the top five and later culled a sixth. Even though Kane Williamson denied South Africa, Morkel emerged an equal winner.
What was notable about that performance was how well he manipulated length. Against an inexperienced opener like Daniel Flynn, Morkel used the short ball. Against others later in the innings, like Dean Brownlie and Daniel Vettori, the yorker came out. He followed up that tour with a season at the IPL, where Delhi coach Eric Simons oversaw further adjustments of length in different conditions.
Morkel was given the new ball in England because of his success rate against Andrew Strauss and it took only four balls for the plan to work. Strauss played across the line and was out lbw. At Headingley, Morkel was the most economical bowler in the face of a Kevin Pietersen assault. He came to Australia having played in all three formats of the game over the last five months with only a two-week break, but he has not looked like he needs a jump-start at any stage. His eight-for in the Adelaide Test is proof enough of that.
Even though Morkel did not have much opportunity to build on that in this innings, with Steyn and Philander taking the honours, he backed them up exceptionally. Morkel kept the pressure on despite Peterson releasing it at the other end. He maintained speeds in the mid-140s and his use of the short ball had the tail fending him off from positions of obvious discomfort. Mitchell Johnson was too late to pull out of one and was hit in the ribs, while John Hastings wore one on the shoulder.
Morkel got no reward for those acts but he is the only one of the pace trio who probably would not mind. South African fast bowlers' egos are known to be fragile but Morkel's has remained humbly strong. Vernon Philander struggled in the first two Tests in England. When he took five in the third and South Africa won, he was gruff in his assessment of why people had questioned him at all. "Stats don't lie," became the line of the final day.
Two days before this Test, Dale Steyn also responded in a similar fashion. After admitting that he had two Tests "where I did not play too well," he was asked if he could identify a reason for it. His response dripped in sarcasm. "Maybe I am just not good enough," he said.
A politely polished Morkel, who has the manners of a schoolboy, has never and is unlikely to ever respond in the same way. Through his periods of inconsistency, he was always closer to sobbing than snapping and now that he has enjoyed success and senior status he will probably savour it quietly. Morkel's performance so far in Perth will be dwarfed by Steyn, Philander, Graeme Smith's brute force and Hashim Amla's fluency and it should be.
All it is, is a step. Another one on the flight Morkel has created for himself this year. Smith said for South Africa to win, they have to stack up good performances for periods of time. Morkel has done exactly that.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent