South Africa v India, 1st Test, Centurion, 2nd day December 17, 2010

Morkel steps into Ntini's shoes

Despite being a very different bowler, Morne Morkel shares many traits with Makhaya Ntini, whose place he has taken in the South Africa squad. His performace in Centurion suggests the handover is complete

Morne Morkel led the South African team off the field after they had bundled India out for 136. His geeky grin was on full display while his teenager-like uncertainty remained as he acknowledged the cheers. He looked a little embarrassed to receive the praise being lavished on him. A meek gesture, two small raises of the right hand, and a purposeful walk back to the dressing room. The only thing that revealed how delighted he was with his career-best haul was his toothy, goofy, sweet smile.

Some of Morkel's youthful jubilance is quite similar to the man whose place he has taken, the man who, for the first time in a decade has not been part of a South African home series - Makhaya Ntini.

A room cannot stay silent if Ntini is in it. He walks in with a swagger and a smile and nothing can stay still. He projects his voice to all corners, guffaws loudly, cracks jokes, interrupts conversations and makes them his own. A party has not seen life until Ntini is there, no matter who else the saying applies to. There's no party he liked better than the one he could have had at SuperSport Park, where the echoes of his grand legacy remain. In ten matches here, Ntini claimed 54 wickets, 14 more than his nearest rival Jacques Kallis. With the amount of grass on the pitch and the bounce there was to exploit, Ntini may have felt a pang of nostalgia when he turned on the television in his Beacon Bay home in East London.

Ntini is being rested for the SuperSport Series match between the Warriors and the Knights and is working at his academy back home, which means he's got plenty of time to think about the current Test and Morkel's supreme haul. Think about it maybe, but he isn't willing to talk about it. Some close to the seamer say it's because he finds it too painful, since part of him longs to be on the field, perhaps this field in particular.

This is where he had four five-wicket hauls and enjoyed tremendous support from a knowledgeable crowd. By the time all of those successes had been recorded, Ntini has already had his most successful year in Test cricket. He took 59 wickets in 12 matches in 2003, the highlight of which was his 10-wicket haul at Lord's. That fruitful period was followed by 5 for 49 against the West Indies in 2004, a series in which he was the top wicket-taker. His next dominant display at SuperSport Park was when he had five-fors in each innings against New Zealand in 2006, followed by another memorable five-wicket haul, against Pakistan in 2007, to complete a South African white-wash.

As eye-catching as Ntini's displays were, some will argue that they didn't reach the spectacular heights of Morkel's 5 for 20 in this match. Morkel, who uses his height to extract bounce, cannot be seen as an immediate replacement to Ntini, the ultra-fit machine who started off only concerned with raw pace. The one thing they do have in common is their new-ball partner. Dale Steyn shared the new-ball with Ntini, and stamped his authority on the international scene in the match against New Zealand were Ntini picked up ten. Steyn and Morkel were partners at the domestic level and are now being dubbed the most feared opening pair in the game. The mantle, it appears, from Ntini to Morkel has been completely handed over.

Ntini's last Test was in December 2009 in Durban against England, where the 114 runs he conceded in 29 overs effectively ended his career. Morkel took 3 for 78 in that match and it kicked off a magical year for him. In 10 Tests this year, he has taken 42 wickets at an average of 23.09 and a strike rate of 46.0, both major improvements on his overall figures.

Rahul Dravid's wicket on the opening day was Morkel's 100th in Tests. The last time Ntini was here, he also had a century milestone. It was his 100th Test, a special and, if he'd paid for it himself, costly occasion. Castle Lager promised a free beer to everyone in the stadium when Ntini got his first wicket of the match. Salivating fans waited two days before Ntini removed England's captain Andrew Strauss' off stump. The round had been bought. The Xhosa-word for Castle (Inqaba) was displayed on the scoreboard and with a wide smile, Ntini made a round gesture with his arm. "It's on me," he meant. Inqaba Makhaya!

His joy that day was a cruel precursor to what was to come. Ntini is suffering in silent pain after a decade of participation came to an abrupt ended. He knows he may not even be able to anymore, but he wants to be the one ripping though the Indian line-up. That's not to say he will begrudge Morkel his glory. When Ntini is ready to speak again, there can be no doubt he will congratulate Morkel in the only way he knows - by making one heck of a noise.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • P on December 18, 2010, 1:53 GMT

    I am currently impressed by SA bowlers, so I have to agree. Awesome stuff!

  • Dre on December 17, 2010, 19:39 GMT

    Ntini is missed worldwide and if he was playing this series (at his best of course) I would find it hard to find many weaknesses in the South African armor. Morkel has come full circle, they say that your 2nd and 3rd years as a player are the toughest because thats when you get found out but the good players get through that and I think and hope Morkel has. World cricket needs Steyn and Morkel.

  • Alex on December 17, 2010, 19:23 GMT

    Lack of practice that cost indians.This is the simple reason for the poor performance of Indian team in SA.Try to play next any foreign trip at least 1 or 2 practice matches .Only in those situations we can rectify our mistakes. Congratulation's to SA Team.They bowled extremely well & their bowls like bullets from a gun,which indians can not replay.Once again Congratulation's to SA Very disappointed the way Indians play's their play is like the school children's playing. Only the way for indian's is to avoid Innings defeat from SA.But even if indians avoid innings defeat it would be a HuGE MIrACLE.

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