February 3, 2010

Morne makes his mark

The younger Morkel brother is now more confident of his role in the team and can't wait to team up with Dale Steyn against India

If Morne Morkel had a bit more cheek, he could be mistaken for Bugs Bunny. He already has the trademark front teeth, the geeky smile and last year he could well have been heard asking the question, "Er … what's up Doc?", as he searched for an answer to his bowling conundrum. Now that Morkel has solved his dilemmas, he walks with the same sassy swagger and wide-eyed excitement as the popular rabbit.

All he needs is a carrot, or three, to chew on. If vegetables don't take his fancy, Morkel has a few other things to mull over, especially since re-establishing himself as a key cog in South Africa's bowling wheel. He was the second highest wicket-taker in the recent series against England, with 19 wickets at an average of 21.47. He and Dale Steyn accounted for more than half the wickets the South African bowlers claimed in the series.

He looks an entirely different man to the one dropped from the national team less than a year ago. What changed? "Opening the bowling has made a huge difference," Morkel said. "I prefer bowling with the hard ball and, now that I am doing that, I also have greater clarity about my role in the team."

Morkel, 25, cites the lack of lucidity in team tactics as the main reason for his slump in form towards the end of last season. "I wasn't sure what I was supposed to do, I was trying everything everyone told me and I ended up trying too hard and getting everything wrong."

Mickey Arthur, the former South Africa coach, agreed Morkel was swamped with a barrage of opinions and questions during the series against Australia and none of them helped him. "He was hearing so many things from the outside about how he was bowling and he wasn't sure what to believe. Because Morne is such a nice guy, he gave everybody who wanted to tell him something the chance to do so, and that only confused him more," Arthur said.

At the time, the South African team had lost three consecutive Tests, including two at home to a rampant Australian side. The administrators were more concerned with avoiding a series whitewash than mending a few broken players and Morkel became one of the casualties. He paid the price for taking only six wickets in two matches of the home series at the 49.83. "I was very disappointed to be dropped, especially since I knew there was nothing wrong with my action. It hurt a lot to see what was being said about me in the papers and it was a really bitter pill for me to swallow. The only consolation was that I was giving my spot up to Albie [his brother], so that softened the blow a little."

Morkel went back to his franchise, the Titans, where it was left to Richard Pybus, then the team's coach, to do the mending. "Just like anyone in the early 20s, he was still trying to figure out his place in the world and work out who he was," Pybus said. "He knew what worked for him in terms of preparation and he needed to build the confidence to do the things that worked for him, instead of what they were doing in the national set-up."

Pybus studied video footage with Morkel and confirmed there was little wrong with his action, except that his timing was "a bit out". The pair soon established that the root cause of Morkel being dropped was a self-belief issue. "I need to clear my mind and refocus," said Morkel. "I had to learn to concentrate on the moment and only control the controllables."

Pybus said he believed Morkel learnt to be less concerned with what people were saying about him. Arthur advised him to "stop being too nice and become nastier." It's hard to say if Morkel has developed a mean streak, but his wickets tally is increasing. He took 18 wickets in five SuperSport Series matches at an average of 21.55, which earned him a recall to the national side. He also formed distinct objectives about his career: "My goal is overtake Makhaya Ntini's record." He currently has 74 Test wickets.

Morkel also wants to cement his new-ball partnership with Steyn, believing the two can form one of the most formidable pairings in the game. "Dale and I complement each other because he has pace and swing and I am quick with bounce." Before his resignation, Arthur said that with Morkel, Steyn and left-arm seamer Wayne Parnell, South Africa's bowling future looked very healthy indeed.

Morkel recognises the India tour will be a challenge for the relatively unhardened South African attack and says they know many questions will be asked of them, especially as the bowlers only managed to take 20 wickets once in the four-match series against England. "There were very small margins for us in that series, we could have taken 20 wickets three times, but we didn't. It's going to be a lot tougher in India because the wickets are not as bouncy , they won't have as much grass and we are going to have to get the ball to reverse."

For that, Morkel may hope he has Bugs' legendary talent for disguise. That, and a bit of cheek, could turn this sweet younger sibling into a real, aggressive force in fast bowling.

Firdose Moonda is a freelance writer based in Johannesburg