South Africa v Sri Lanka, 1st Test, Centurion, 1st day December 15, 2011

Morkel's struggles come from within

Morne Morkel has struggled since having the new ball taken away from him

After Morne Morkel had bowled five overs, he was taken out of the attack and sent to fine-leg, where Allan Donald was waiting for him. South Africa's bowling coach had a few quiet words with him - encouragement perhaps, motivation to make better use of the conditions or a small reminder to return to the strategies previously thought out.

At that point, Morkel had not done too much wrong. He started well, with a brutal bouncer that struck Tharanga Paranavitana on the helmet. He induced an edge three balls later, which fell safely before the slips, then again with the first ball of his second over, although this time it went through the cordon for four and then once more two balls later, when it went between second slip and gully. In his first spell, he beat the bats of both Paranavitana and Jayawardene, extracted good bounce and threatened with the short ball.

Still, he looked somewhat uncomfortable. Morkel had to stop in his delivery stride on several occasions and he alternated his rip-snorters with short, wide balls that signalled he had not found his rhythm. He did not bowl for the rest of the session and came out onto the field before the lunch break had ended to try and sort it out. Morkel spent a few minutes with Donald, working on his stride, but when play resumed he still seemed unsure of himself.

He was given the ball immediately and sent down a no-ball with the second delivery he bowled. Through his career, Morkel has overstepped as a sign of nervousness, insecurity and anxiety, and what unfolded after that delivery showed that the same problems had crept in.

In that over, a short and wide ball was cut away by Jayawardene. He tried a different line but the batsmen could leave that alone, and when he tried to go fuller he was driven. Then came the delivery that summed up Morkel's day: a wicket off a no-ball. After bowling four dot balls, two of them harmless wide ones, he found the edge when Thilan Samaraweera was caught on his crease and sent the ball to AB de Villiers at third slip. Morkel had overstepped. Had the delivery been legal, his figures would have read 7.5-1-25-1 at that stage.

Instead, it resulted in an end analysis of 10-1-48-0, with Morkel conceding 23 runs in 14 balls after that, five of them boundaries. He bowled too straight, too short, too wide, too full and tossed in two more no-balls.

Weaved through Morkel's misery was Vernon Philander's extraordinary success. The contrast could not have been starker. Philander started with a wobbling loosener and within an over had found his regular, fourth-stump line. By the time he was into his third over, Philander had dismissed Sri Lanka's best batsman, forcing Kumar Sangakkara to play at a delivery that took off from a length to have him caught at second slip.

Philander did not just bring swagger and suave to the bowling unit, he took Morkel's place with the new ball while doing it. Morkel has not looked the same since he was moved to first-change.

His consistent aggression, consistent lines, consistent lengths and consistently application of variations in both, resulted in him becoming only the fifth bowler to take a five-for in each of this first three games. Luck was on his side as well, with two decisions going his way that would not have been possible without the assistance of technology.

Even without those wickets, though, Philander posed the biggest threat to Sri Lanka's batsmen. Every time he bowled a ball, the possibility that something was going to happen existed. His stock delivery, the one that lands on off and straightens from an awkward length, regularly asks questions of batsmen who are not sure if they want to drive or leave. His confidence cannot be shaken, whether he is lashed through the covers by Tillakaratne Dilshan, whipped through the leg-side by Paranavitana or tonked down the ground by a lower-order batsman. Philander has enough self-belief to come back and bowl a better ball the next time. Morkel, seemingly, does not.

As a player who is driven by his emotions, Morkel cannot distance himself enough from a situation to look at it objectively, analyse it carefully and concoct a way to improve it. He showed that against England at The Oval in 2008, when wickets did not come his way in an encounter England dominated, and against Australia in Durban in 2009, when Phil Hughes tore into him and he couldn't recover. Then, his position was rocked by situations and individuals. Now, his uncertainty comes from within.

Philander did not just bring swagger and suave to the bowling unit, he took Morkel's place with the new ball while doing it. Although too good-natured to admit that having the new ball taken away from him has made him question himself, Morkel has not looked the same since he was moved to first-change. He no longer has Dale Steyn at the other end, to attack in a different way to the methods he employed. Instead, he has Jacques Kallis who is seeking, primarily, to contain and Morkel has the responsibility of being the sole searer on his end. It may simply be too much for him to bear.

It may also be that he is struggling with complication of his new role. If the opening pair have failed to make a breakthrough, pressure is on him to do it, and if they have made many, as they did against Sri Lanka today, the pressure is still on him - to keep applying pressure. It's not as clear cut as being given the brand new red nut and being given a licence to kill, no matter what. Talent is one thing, shrewdness is another and Morkel has more of the former than the latter.

Donald has bags of the latter and some of it may have been part of what he was trying to pass on to Morkel on the boundary. For as long as the attack as a whole is successful, Morkel will have the time to learn. As soon as a situation arises in which it becomes crucial for Morkel too to deliver, he will be expected to remember what it was Donald said to him midway through the morning session of this Test.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • mahjut on December 17, 2011, 23:47 GMT

    jonathonjosephs ... I was simply going to say "you're crazy" but I feel like chatting. Morkel does what Finn does, what Tremlett does and just as well. When he's good he can be devastating ... of course, if he was as consistently devastin as Steyn ha been and Vernon may continue to be that would be fantastic but he isn't. But he's still a lot more consistent now than he was a couple of years ago. I think they'd be idiotic to even consider not continuing with him... and for as long as necessary.

  • Kendal on December 16, 2011, 9:24 GMT

    @ AidanFX - Vernon Philander has been the top wicket taker in the SuperSport series (south african first class competition) for the last couple of seasons, so his success in Test cricket so far is not out of the blue at all, as the standard of the first class competition is pretty high in south africa, i would imagine. That average will most probably level out over time but he's put in the hard yards for sure, so i can see him being generally pretty successful...

  • Ross on December 16, 2011, 8:22 GMT

    Morkel has the same problem Broad has. He bowls too short too often. Short balls have their use, but they are generally not the wicket taking balls. Joel Garner was probably the tallest high rank fast bowler ever, and is best delivery was the yorker. Morkel must learn to pitch it up more. He already has extra bounce from his height - why is he bowling it short?

  • Aidan on December 16, 2011, 7:45 GMT

    So can the SA fans help an Aussie and tell me - if Philander is that GOOD! - Or has he surprised you too? Did he show this much potential at first class level? Or do you guys think the guy will continue to perform well (as he is and more right now early on) but his stats will invariably level out? Or do you think he will maintain this run of form through his careers. SA look to have a good attack here.

  • Raju on December 16, 2011, 6:49 GMT

    Listen Guys, if you have any problem whatsoever with Morkel, we in India will be more than happy to take him. There is an old Indian proverb about how only a (good) jeweller can identify a great diamond....!!!

  • Dummy4 on December 16, 2011, 6:08 GMT

    oh man...this is the generation of over hyped bowlers like Morkel,Anderson(who is only good in England),Bresnan,Broad,TrEMLETT....The real deals are Steyn,Philander,Ajmal,Pattinson,Cummins...

  • Shulz Van on December 16, 2011, 5:13 GMT

    Not a biggie...some ppl are getting too happy n carried away.....It happens to all great bowlers and Morkel is a great Bowler...Steyn n Morkel is better than all English Bowlers...and they would prove it ONCE AGAIN in England like they did last time...PLUS they have Tahir and Philander....SA attack is scary.....

  • sam on December 16, 2011, 4:03 GMT

    @OhhmattyMatty The only world class fast bowler England has is Anderson. And the only bowler England who can become great is Finn (he is still raw though). Tremlett looks excellent but may already be past his prime. The others are your typical overhyped bowlers (Bresnan and Broad). In fact no one is better than Darren Gough except Anderson.

  • Satish on December 16, 2011, 4:00 GMT

    Morkel though was inconsistent, bowled some brutes in his spells.. Roughening up is also important for any team.. Morkel can be handy any day.. I still doubt the role of Tahir in the SA setup... Harris can complement the attack better than Tahir under these conditions..

  • Johnathon on December 16, 2011, 2:42 GMT

    Call me crazy, but I never really saw anything in Morne Morkel. He is not lethal with swing/seaming as much, but is only good by extracting that extra bounce. With in the side, the SA attack is lethal in almost any pitch, but for grassy green wickets like this one, I would have opted for Tsotsobe or even Parnell for that left arm. Its not that Morkel is bad ( he is good), but Tsotsobe/Parnell have more to offer for the South African side.

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