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South Africa's batsmen had laid the foundations, but the pitch looked slow and low. Then Morne Morkel took the ball in his hand and the Test match gained a different complexion
Firdose Moonda in Port Elizabeth
February 22, 2014
Cullinan: Bat for an hour, then go hard at Australia
Contrary to on-field evidence, Morne Morkel does not hate Australians. Later this year, he will marry one.
Morkel actually does not hate anyone. The term gentle giant was invented for him, even though his job is to make people feel as uncomfortable and scared as possible when they are 22 yards away from him on a cricket field.
The Port Elizabeth pitch was supposed to make him a more realistic impression of his moniker. Slow, low and generally unresponsive, Morkel should have been like a manual labourer in the modern age - made to work hard for very little reward. Instead, he was the Pied Piper and made both the ball and the opposition dance to his tune.
Morkel was, by some distance, the best bowler on a surface which did nothing to flatter any of them. He was the only one who could consistently generate bounce, get good carry and cause problems for the batsmen. Morkel managed all of that for three reasons: his height, his speed and his accuracy.
Being the tallest man around has many advantages and it is one of the reasons Morkel can make the ball travel past batsmen's ears more often than not. But that would mean nothing if it was doing it without pace - his was up over 140kph for almost every ball he bowled and even went over 150kph on occasion - or direction. Morkel aimed at the body with ever increasing aggression after he had David Warner dropped late on the second day.
The nightwatchman Nathan Lyon bore of the brunt of Morkel's frustration as the quick bombarded him. He struck the helmet, he struck the glove, he aimed at his face and he eventually made him back away. Lyon had been given a working over and would have slept uneasy even though he had not been dismissed in eight Tests.
Morkel started against him this morning and after four balls hit him on the glove again. The ricochet struck him the shoulder. There will probably be a bruise. Lyon's stubbornness made Morkel crank up the pace and beat him with that, instead of the ball, for a change. Lyon did not know where the ball was when he looked to flick it away. By the time he did, it was past his inside edge and in AB de Villiers' hands.
The inevitable happened when Lyon backed away to a short ball he ended up wanting to play and hit it into his stumps. It may not have been the way Morkel would have wanted him to go but the first mission was accomplished and Morkel only became meaner.
As though he was trying to give Mitchell Johnson a taste of his own medicine on behalf of the entire batting line-up, when Morkel saw him there was only one thing on his mind. With the first ball he struck him on the glove and then the ribs. With the next, he pinged the helmet.
Morkel did not account for Johnson in the end, and had to satisfy himself with having Steven Smith out on review followed by Ryan Harris, but he was central in the softening up to allow South Africa's other bowlers to cash in. He did not let up against the tailenders either. Bouncer after bouncer made the surface South Africa were operating on seem a different one to which Australia bowled on.
I can make an impact in different ways - Morkel
There was intensity in South Africa's attack because they saw one of their own making something happen. Before this Test match, Makhaya Ntini told ESPNcricinfo if Steyn is not able to spearhead the pack, Morkel should take over. It was as though Morkel took that as an order. He lifted the morale by lifting his own game and South Africa prospered.
But better than that, his hostility was sandwiched between two South African batting efforts that were as workmanlike and aggressive as their bowling has often been. You could argue that this is the first time since August 2012 against, England at Lord's, that South Africa's batsmen have successfully responded to being under pressure batting first to find a way to give the team an advantage. Then they fought back from 54 for 4 to score 309 which ultimately proved enough to secure the win that took them to No. 1 in the world.
Since then, South Africa have won four matches by more than an innings, an indication of the strength of their line-up but also a sign that they were relatively untroubled in their victory march. They have also been engineered by dominant first-up bowling displays. In their other four triumphs the foundations have occasionally been built by the batting but it has again often been their bowling which has been credited with throwing the first punches in anger and winning matches.
South Africa's attack has brought them into matches when they have started slowly - The Oval in 2012 for example - and blasted the opposition away when their batting has been under pressure; Pakistan for 49 in Johannesburg and 99 in Dubai, the match after a defeat, come to mind. With those "reference points," as Graeme Smith calls them, in mind South Africa's line-up has often been able to trust the attack would make-up for any indiscretions on their part.
Perhaps it took a pitch like this to force them into seizing the initiative as they did. Dean Elgar and JP Duminy batted with responsibility, AB de Villiers batted like the best batsman in the world, which he is at the moment, and South Africa had a first innings total they could really work with. They needed swift damage from their attack, which Morkel and Vernon Philander orchestrated, and then they needed quick runs to turn an advantage into a winning position. Hashim Amla answered that call.
He also played himself back into form, after seven innings without a fifty. It looked as though the lean run would stretch when his first boundary came through an edge but with a bit of early luck he was able to spend time at the crease. He showed the touch was still there and the back-foot drives had not evaporated from his memory.
He put South Africa in a position where their only decision will be based on the clock. With rain forecast throughout Monday, South Africa will have to look at a declaration early on the fourth day if they hope to beat the weather. Otherwise they will have to hope the weather, unlike Morne Morkel, is not engaged to an Australian.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondentFeeds: Firdose Moonda
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