'Aggression is about being able to bowl 90mph for a whole day'
In his 71-Test career Morne Morkel has only missed one Test match his country has played. He has been South Africa's best Test bowler over the last two years, and was their best bowler in the 2015 World Cup. Yet, unlike his compatriot and friend Dale Steyn, Morkel has probably not got the recognition he is due. "Make sure you build me up," Morkel says laughing during this interview at the Kolkata Knight Riders team hotel in Kolkata recently. He admits he finds it hard to open up in front of the media, but he wants people to know how hard he works at his bowling. He also talks about how important downtime has been for him ever since the birth of his first child, eight months ago.
You seem to have been busy babysitting a fair bit during this IPL.
Yeah, quite a lot. I have been away from home quite a lot. I need to give my wife a big award because she has been raising my little boy for the past eight months now. I have played a small role up to now, but I know my time will come, where I will need to give throwdowns in the backyard and those sort of things. I haven't done a lot of babysitting, but I am getting used to it, and I don't mind changing nappies.
It has been nearly ten years now that you have been an international fast bowler. What has the journey been like?
Can't believe it is already ten years. It has been a fantastic ride so far. Growing up in a small town, where the odds of me playing even one Test match were very much against me, to grow up and play for ten years, and what is it now, 71 Test matches, 106 ODIs is a massive achievement for me.
Also, being the younger brother of Albie - when I was growing up a lot of people said I was living in his shadow. To eventually make a mark for myself in international cricket and to go on and achieve certain goals is something special.
It has gone quickly. I am 32 and getting close to retirement, but certainly the journey has been unbelievable.
There is a story from your early days that Jacques Kallis, after having faced you for the first time in the nets in Pretoria, asked the coaches who you were and said you should play for South Africa.
I would like to give a lot of thanks to Ray Jennings. I had just finished school. I was alone, had no sort of direction. I was going to go to England and play cricket there, but Ray invited me to go and play in the Easterns' nets. My brother was playing at Easterns at the time. I went that afternoon, had a bowl in the nets, had quite a good session, went back the following week, got a junior contract by luck or by chance.
Couple of months later, Ray was announced as the head coach of the South African team and they were playing against England in South Africa and they needed net bowlers. So, for a skinny lad it was fantastic to go and spend the afternoon and bowl against and see the greats like Jacques Kallis.
Funny enough, my first ball was against Jacques. I remember I was so nervous. To cut a long story short, two or three years later I was playing in the same team as him. It is amazing how quickly a door can open or an opportunity can arrive. You just need to be at the right time in the right place.
What is the hardest part of your style of fast bowling?
I get a lot of bounce, and I want to use that as much as possible. I get criticised a lot for bowling the wrong lengths, but the thing people don't understand is, I am not a swing bowler. If I go fuller, I don't swing the ball, so it is actually a free hit for the batsmen. It is that sort of a fight with the media I have had, where they have wanted me to bowl fuller for ten years, or about me being inconsistent. But it wasn't so much the inconsistency, it was just me trying so hard to prove people wrong. As I have got more experienced over the years, I have managed to deal with that [criticism] better. From a normal couch critic, who does not understand the game, those sort of things can be tricky.
A senior Indian journalist remembers Rahul Dravid telling him how you were the sort of irritating bowler who would bowl short of a length and hit people in the ribs consistently.
That is my strength. That is why over the years we have formed such a unique or good bowling attack for South Africa. I was something different to Dale [Steyn] and Vern [Philander] or Makhaya [Ntini] or Jacques. I was getting the guys on the back foot. Dale then got the ball a little further up and swung the ball. That made us a lethal combination with the different styles we brought to the middle.
Has your aim always been to push the batsman onto the back foot?
No, I wouldn't really say that. I have learned now to do that and go fuller. My aim was just to help the bowler at the other end. If we were leaking runs, to bring the run rate back. For me it is always about bowling 100%. From ball one I will try and bowl 140-plus and bowl quickly. That is one of the most important things. I wouldn't really focus on just bowling short to get the batsman on the back foot. I was clearly the guy that wanted to create pressure, and that is the sort of role I produce in the team at the moment.
The image that often comes to mind when we think of Morne Morkel is: hands on the head, hands on hips, the nearly man. Is that a wrong portrait?
Most of my career, I have missed Lady Luck a few times. But, like I said, with my style of bowling, in a way I am bowling for one [type of] dismissal, which is caught behind, because I get a lot of bounce off the wicket. If you asked me to get an lbw or bowled, that is a little bit against me.
Freddie Flintoff was one guy I spoke to years ago in the UK about fast bowling, and he said to me, I must just realise that if it is my day and make it count, and if it is not, to make sure I create pressure for other guys. It is a team game. I am quite happy with my stats. I have got fantastic memories in my mind, and that is the most important thing.
But batsmen do respect your bowling.
That is one of the reasons I play the game. For me the bigger achievement is a guy like Rahul, a legend of the game, knowing Morne Morkel and giving compliments like that. That is far more important than any bowling spell, any stats. For me it is about making my mark in the international scene, and legends of the game can say, "Wow, it is quite tricky to face this guy. He gets a lot of bounce", and things like that.
You spoke about being in your brother's shadow. Has it always been like that - Albie first, then Dale Steyn and the other South African fast bowlers like Ntini, Andre Nel, and now even Philander?
I wouldn't say I was really in their shadows. When I started off, we were at the time blessed in South Africa with quality fast bowlers. Shaun Pollock, Makhaya, Jacques, you can't ask for a better combination than that. When they eventually moved on, it was up to myself and Steyn to go and carry that mantle. To date we have done a good job and soon it will be our time to pass that on to [Kagiso] Rabada and Chris Morris and those sort of guys. It is a cycle. No. 65 is my Test number. That spot in my team is not going to be always mine forever. Just trying to make the most of it now.
Is it wrong to say you are too nice a fast bowler?
I spoke with Gautam [Gambhir] and a lot of other guys - for me, it is not really about bowling a ball and being a nasty fast bowler. Batsmen are aware of what I can do. So I don't have to do verbal. I don't have to do anything that is not me. I like to stay in my zone. I like to stay focused, in my bubble. For me it is more about having a quick little stare at the batsman and having strong body language. Body language is the most important thing for me when it comes to bowling. And nowadays you get fined, so you can't really give [verbals].
"One day, when somebody or something does make him angry, he'll be the best bowler in the world." Steyn said that of you.
We are completely different personalities. Steynki is a guy who really gets pumped up and really brings aggression to his game. That is one of the reasons why he is so successful. It is not my style. It is not the way that I play the game. For me, friendships, memories in the game, are far more important than being the idiot on the field, and in life after cricket, guys avoiding me because I was this guy who I am not off the field.
Maybe Steyn was talking not about being angry against the batsman but creating an anger inside your own self?
We never spoke about it, but when I have the ball in hand, I am competitive, and that is the most important thing.
You seem to be pretty obsessive about your run-up.
I don't enjoy my run-up. I have been working on it forever, basically. Now, of late, I have learned to adapt a little bit because you will have a set of routines, but some days you will have more adrenaline, other days your lower back is a little bit stiffer, so you are running in slower. I have learned now more or less to work out on the day what I need to do. Yes, my run-up is one of the things I have struggled with most.
You do a little turn to the left before you start to run in. Is that a habit that you never left behind?
Yeah, just a habit. I am trying to get that turn out of my game, actually, but I have been doing it for so bloody long, it is tough to do it. When I first started, I felt my run-up was too short. I struggled if I was standing stationary to get enough momentum to the crease, so that little circle helped me to start on my left foot and give that extra momentum. Also, it helped in terms of not running in from too much of an angle.
How do you achieve a bowling rhythm?
Being a tall bowler, I am not as lucky as Dale and those sort of guys. For me, the more I bowl, the better my timing will get, the better my rhythm will get. So I spend a lot of time at training, bowling a lot of overs.
Do you think it is fair to say that you have never been recognised as a leader of the attack?
No, I think I have. There are a lot of times where Steynki has had to sit down and I took over the leadership role. I am part of the senior group of the Proteas team and that is quite special. I have got all the ingredients to be a leader, but there are better guys than me at the moment. Guys like AB, Steynki - I am ready and happy to help them and give my input. I am very comfortable with that role
How did you take it when the think tank decided to have Steyn share the new ball with Philander?
Once again, it was not really about being in the shadows. It is just about roles. The way Vern bowls with the new ball, it is unbelievable.
I can do both roles: there are a lot of times that we change around, where I will start with the new ball, Dale will bowl first change, depending on the game plans against batsmen and teams. Against England a couple of years ago, I took the new ball every time with the left-handers upfront. It is all about adapting. That is why I can play a key role in the team: I can bowl first change, second change, and with the new ball.
Bowling partnerships are crucial. Steyn gave the example of getting under the skin of Michael Hussey once and you bowled him eventually. You have created pressure many times from one end and your team-mates have earned the reward. Is there an example of that that comes to your mind in Test cricket?
One was against India. We bowled a whole session to Gautam and Sachin in Cape Town in 2011. It just worked out perfectly with the right-left combination at the crease. I was bowling at Gautam and getting a little bit of extra bounce, and Steynki was swinging the ball from the other end. I was so in the zone on that day. The wicket had nice pace, some good bounce, and I went out and did my thing. It is never about living in the shadows. It is about who is doing well on the day - if it is my day, just make it count.
The spell at Newlands in 2014 against Michael Clarke must be one you won't forget.
Yes (smiles). In that series Mitchell Johnson came round the stumps a lot against our batsmen. It was a difficult angle to play and it was really tough for our batsmen to handle Mitch on that tour. We just decided in Cape Town I was going to try exactly the same, come round the stumps. If they speak about it in their dressing room, surely some of them must be uncomfortable as well, to face from the same angle. I tried it against Michael, and yeah, it came out nicely.
You went wicketless in that first innings, but it was a spell that was worth two to three wickets - as bowling coach Allan Donald said at the media conference that evening.
It was quite nice [of Donald to say]. The Test before, in Port Elizabeth, before the close of play, was probably one of the best spells I had bowled at that stage of my career for a while. The wicket was very slow. And those were the best nine overs I had bowled in a while.
In Newlands what was evident was the deliberate intent, which Donald said was a key factor. Have you maintained that consistently through your career?
I think so. Obviously at 70 Test matches, you are not going to have fantastic days every day, but a large percentage of my career I have done what was expected of me. Unfortunately for me, at times earlier in my career, I was labelled inconsistent. You can never shake those things off.
I was not referring to the image you have carried through your career, but more about your psyche as a fast bowler. Like with the short ball that deflected off Clarke's shoulder and hit him in the jaw.
That is the sort of style of bowling you need to plan properly. It is not about saying, okay, I am going to go round the stumps [and bang it short], because you use a lot of energy [in delivering such a ball]. You try to bowl as quick as possible. From the intensity point of view, after that spell I realised there was a next gear for me in my bowling. It was nice to discover unknown ground and know that I can deliver those blows.
Did you wonder why Clarke just kept taking the hits?
It was just the sort of the day where I had some good rhythm and the ball was bouncing from quite a good length. After that, he went and scored a hundred. It just tells you about Clarke - to get through that period, to tough it out and go on and score a big hundred.
What did you do that evening when you relaxed?
Sometimes it is nice to revisit that spell. Whenever I need something to boost me, it is nice to look on YouTube and watch and hear the crowd of Newlands getting behind me. That gives me the extra motivation to put my training clothes on and go to the gym and run that extra kilometre, because ultimately that is also one of the reasons why we play cricket, for memories like that.
How do you define aggression?
Aggression with the ball is being able to bowl at 90mph for an entire day in a Test match, to have a good body language, and even if you are leaking runs, never show the batsman that he is on top of you. The first 20 balls, any batsman in the world is vulnerable, so I have to be very strong in my areas and in my control and just have a little bit of eye contact. That is the key.
When did you start doing it consistently?
It's like, if you go on a first date with your girlfriend, you are going to be uncomfortable. But if you go on two or three dates, you are going to hold her hand. It is the same with cricket: the more you feel settled and comfortable, you take that responsibility of saying, "I am going to do it today, I want to do it for the team and it is my job to step up", then it comes automatically.
Steyn has spoken about wanting you at mid-off or mid-on and discussing fishing while the world is thinking you are planning how to defeat the opposition. Do you have any similar tricks?
I don't want to give all my secrets away because we have got an important summer coming up and I want the batsmen to think we are planning their downfall and not talking about climbing a mountain (laughs).
Your career and Steyn's have almost run parallel. Can you talk about the camaraderie you two share?
When I first joined Titans, we were best mates from the second day. We learned to try and not give in as we went on to play for South Africa. For me the nice thing with Dale is, he is a hell of a competitor on the field, but off the field we like to get away from the game and we share the same sort of love for nature and for the outdoors. We have been on some amazing fishing trips on tour. One of the most important things is to get away on tour and not make it just all about cricket, cricket, cricket, because you are going to burn yourself out mentally.
After you played a lead role with the ball in Kolkata Knight Riders' title finish in 2014, AB de Villiers said: "He's bolstered up his performance, but it's not just about that. He walks the talk. He's very confident, and I don't think you've always seen that in his career. So the fact that he's lifted a trophy with Kolkata in the IPL maybe played a big part in him really believing that he actually can play a big role in teams winning cups." Could you talk about what exactly changed for you there?
It was nice to win the trophy. I have won some trophies at the Titans, but to win at an international stage was good. Unfortunately with the South African team we have not won [ICC limited-overs] silverware, so to be part of the Kolkata Knight Riders and win the IPL was unbelievable.
You have spoken about Mike Horn, the explorer and motivation consultant, having played an influential role in your career. Can you elaborate?
Mike is sort of my mentor in life. I met him a couple of years ago in Switzerland, where the South African squad went for training before the England tour. I fell in love with his outlook in life and the energy he has got in life. He has become one of my best friends. Just the way he makes me look at life through different eyes and says just to enjoy things more, not to put too much pressure on myself. He says life is a journey and I must try to create as many memories as possible because before I know it, my career will be over. Not to have any regrets.
Lines like that are inspiring. He is a guy who has done amazing things in life, and the stories he has told us I have tried to incorporate in my life. We have spoken about the way of living life and seeing life in cricket and life with my family. A lot of times in cricket you are busy with touring and there is cricket, cricket, cricket, and in the process you neglect your family life. At the end of the day you need to understand your family is also important, so putting emphasis on spending time with your family and your loved ones is important.
A proper work-life balance?
Exactly. You get into the bubble of international cricket and you want to perform day in and day out, but it is impossible to do that. So he has helped me to create that clarity, that it is okay to have a bad day.
I used to beat myself up on bad days, but life goes on, tomorrow the sun will rise again, nobody is dead. Roger Federer also once said that a lot of people were on his case for not performing, but at the end of the day we are just playing a sport. It is not all about winning every day. There are times when I go out and things don't go my way, but on that day I still have given my 100%. When we go to these social events, people ask me sometimes why I am not going and training today, or say I should be in the nets. Allow me to go to the cinema and enjoy a movie or watch the Springboks play the All Blacks.
Do you get grief over that in South Africa?
Oh, yeah. All the time. We are not allowed to do anything in life. We must just think cricket 24/7, especially on social media.
You are the highest Test wicket-taker for South Africa since 2014 in Tests. You were the highest wicket-taker for South Africa in the World Cup. Have you achieved the goals you set yourself?
You want to always reach higher. And that is the reason I am still playing. I still feel there is a percentage of me the world has not seen, and hopefully in the next couple of years I can do that. And be part of South African winning an ICC trophy.
Nagraj Gollapudi is a senior assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo