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December 16, 2013
Cheteshwar Pujara didn't have to think too hard when asked who the fastest bowler he has ever faced is. Morne Morkel.
The answer may come as a surprise, especially since Pujara, who has recently played against the likes of Dale Steyn and Tino Best*. But Pujara was adamant. Morkel was the quickest.
South Africa's management team would be pleased. For months, they have been saying the same thing. Morkel has got the speed gun more excited than Steyn, and has softened batsmen up more than Vernon Philander but just hasn't recorded the same results. Luckily for them, Morkel is completely comfortable playing a supporting role.
"My partnership with Dale is long gone. Vernon and Dale are the new guys and I've made peace with that. I am not going to wear the yellow jersey anymore," Morkel said, referring to what a cyclist dons when he is the stage leader in a race. "Those guys have been unbelievable for the team."
Between them, Steyn and Philander have taken 69 wickets in Tests this year. Steyn's 41 have come at an average of 14.36 while Philander's 28 average 16.35. Contrastingly, Morkel has managed only 13 wickets at 30.69, but he has played as important a role as the other two.
Morkel's job is a balance between pressing home any advantage Steyn and Philander give South Africa, while buttering batsmen up for a fresh assault from the opening pair. With the bounce he generates, he has to ensure the batsmen can never settle and has also been tasked with keeping run-scoring to a minimum, as he did in the Abu Dhabi Test against Pakistan.
When neither Steyn nor Philander could break through, Morkel simply held his end. He was South Africa's most economical bowler, costing them only 1.52 runs an over, and even though they lost that match, Morkel's ability to contain was a positive.
Traditionally, Morkel does not so much frustrate as cause fear. He applies the basting - short of length balls which keep batsmen on the back foot and bouncers directed at the body - so someone else can do the roasting. Despite the Wanderers surface likely to offer more for Morkel than some of the other bowlers, he sees himself playing a similar role.
"When I come to the Wanderers, I bowl for one dismissal - for the caught behind because I get so much bounce," he said. Morkel has taken 15 of his 177 wickets at the ground, with a best of 4 for 59 against England three years ago, which may be why he doesn't see it as his favourite hunting ground. "The most important thing for me is to stick to my strengths. It's always been bouncy and quick here and the margins are a little bit smaller. It will be crucial that we do not get carried away."
Have game plans for each batsman - Morkel
While conditions will suit the seamers more than in other places, Morkel is still well aware that batsmen have also enjoyed playing at the Wanderers. The ball comes onto the bat quicker, aiding stroke-making, while altitude and a fast outfield allow the ball to travel faster once hit.
For Morkel, that means there's a distinct possibility of a high-scoring game, especially because of the mindset of the Indian players, which he described as "very attacking." He identified the likes of Rohit Sharma, Virat Kohli and R Ashwin as batsmen who would take the fight to South Africa and wants his team-mates to start well to blunt the Indian line-up's intent.
"Where we have been guilty of late is that we start a little bit slowly, like in Abu Dhabi," he said. South Africa went 1-0 down in the series before surging back to square it in Dubai. Morkel does not want to see a lapse like that ahead of a home summer that culminates with three Tests against a much-improved Australia. "For us it's key to take momentum and get overs in our feet. It's going to be important to get used to bowling long spells again and playing competitive cricket."
Despite India's build-up - a 2-0 thrashing in the ODI series and a washed-out tour game to deprive them of any red-ball match practice - this series still pits the top-ranked Test team against the second-placed one and they are expected to be well matched. The central battle lines have been drawn between South Africa's bowlers and India's batsmen with conditions expected to favour the former and challenge the latter.
Morkel doesn't think it's that simple, which is why he wants to slip back to basics and his supporting actor role to play his part in the contest. "It doesnt matter who you play against or where, the top of off stump and the odd bouncer is a winning combination," he said. And that's what he will be doing.
*December 16 4:30 pm GMT This article had incorrectly stated that Pujara faced Mitchell Johnson in the recent ODI series between Australia and India
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondentFeeds: Firdose Moonda
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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