Morkel returns to Test squad; wicketkeeper Klaasen called up
Morne Morkel has been included in South Africa's Test squad to tour New Zealand in March after recovering from a career-threatening back injury, which kept him out of the national team since June. Morkel forms part of a six-member-strong pace pack, which also includes Vernon Philander, who has recovered from an ankle impingement sustained after the Sri Lanka Tests, Kagiso Rabada, Duanne Olivier, and allrounders Wayne Parnell and Chris Morris.
In the absence of AB de Villiers, who opted out of Test cricket for most of 2017, South Africa are taking reserve batsman Theunis de Bruyn and uncapped Titans wicketkeeper Heinrich Klaasen, who finished seventh on the batting charts in the Sunfoil Series first-class competition.
Klaasen was preferred over Knights' keeper Rudi Second, who was a spot a above him on the run-scorers' list and was considered the favourite to deputise for Quinton de Kock now that Dane Vilas has signed a Kolpak deal. However, the selectors decided to give Klaasen a go, although they have assured Second he still remains in their plans. "Heinrich is a guy that struck us as someone who has the capability of coping at international level. He is a good striker of the ball and tight behind the stumps," Linda Zondi, South Africa's convener of selectors told ESPNcricinfo. "But it was touch and go between him and Rudi, and they are both on our radar."
South Africa's batting line-up is unchanged from the seven specialists who did duty in Australia and against Sri Lanka with Dean Elgar and Stephen Cook at the top, followed by Hashim Amla, captain Faf du Plessis, Temba Bavuma and JP Duminy, but there will be a conundrum in the bowling department, where South Africa have given themselves plenty of choice. "We are still looking to see who will assist Kagiso Rabada and Vernon Philander," Zondi said. "But our plan is to use our senior guys."
That suggests Morkel will edge ahead of the rest, despite a lengthy period of time out of the game and limited game-time in the lead-up to the series. Since being diagnosed with a bulging back disc after the CPL last year, Morkel has played one first-class game for the Titans, three warm-up matches during South Africa's Test tour of Australia and one List A game for his franchise. At the time of writing, Morkel had been named in the Titans XI for a second one-day cup game before heading off at the weekend. Zondi admitted Morkel's inaction is a concern but insisted his experience is a necessity. "Time away is always a concern but we need experience in the bowling so we'll see how he goes," Zondi said.
Morkel is not the only one who has had a long lay-off recently. Morris spent three months recovering from a knee injury before making a comeback in the ODIs against Sri Lanka and he has since impressed enough to also earn a Test recall. Morris played two Tests in January 2016 against England, when South Africa had a glut of injuries, and was thought to have fallen down the pecking order but has now forced his way back in. "What has been so impressive is how he has understood his job. His primary role is to bowl and the batting is a bonus and that is exactly how he is tackling things," Zondi said. "We have always wanted a seam-bowling allrounder and now we are finding we have a few."
Morris and Parnell are the two in the Test squad but both could end up confined to the bench with Duanne Olivier also competing for the third seamer's spot. Olivier, who was the leading bowler in this season's first-class competition and the only one to take more than 50 wickets, made his debut during the Wanderers Test against Sri Lanka and impressed with pace, bounce and aggression. He was selected alongside Parnell in all-pace attack in that match; although he took one wicket fewer than Parnell, Olivier was more economical. In the aftermath of Kyle Abbott's exit, Olivier has emerged as a serious contender for the third seamer's spot and, if given the opportunity, could stake a serious claim in New Zealand.
The only bowling place not up for debate is that of the spinner because South Africa are traveling with only one. Keshav Maharaj has retained his place in an expanded 16-man squad. Given the distance and time difference to New Zealand, South Africa are opting for extra men to ensure they have all bases covered. The Test squad members who are not already in New Zealand will travel there this weekend.
The three-Test series will begin from March 8 with the first match in Dunedin, followed by Tests in Wellington and Hamilton.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent