After more than a year out of Test cricket, it's now or never for Morne Morkel, who will make his international comeback in Dunedin on Wednesday. South Africa have decided to gamble on their lanky quick, despite his lack of game time, and are banking on his experience to pull him through.
"He looks good. If he is not going to be able play now, then we will never know if we don't take the chance. He is a fantastic bowler," Faf du Plessis, South Africa's Test captain, said. "I have said to him over the last six months that every time he has bowled in the nets, it felt to me like he was bowling at his best. His consistency is really good. It's just an opportunity we have to take as a team and see where Morne is with his back. All the reports say he is 100% fine. He's bowled a lot of overs and he is pretty confident. He will just have to step out and see what he can do."
Morkel has only played two matches this year, both List A games for his South African franchise, Titans which takes his total to six matches since the CPL last July, where he sustained the back niggle that has sidelined him for seven months. Since then, he hasn't quite gained full fitness. He traveled with the South African Test team to Australia and participated in all three practice matches but the injury scares recurred too frequently and he could not play any of the Tests. Then, he was ruled out of the home series against Sri Lanka and a planned recall in the ODIs was pushed back after Morkel could not play a provincial game because his symptoms flared up again.
In the lead-up to this series, Morkel revealed the bulging disc in his spine was considered serious enough to end his career but he wanted to give playing at the highest level another go and underwent intensive rehabilitation. Even when it seemed other players had gone past him in the pecking order, Morkel kept training and his determination has now seen him edge out three other pacers - Duanne Olivier, Wayne Parnell and Chris Morris - in the starting XI.
Of those, Olivier may feel the most hard done by. He made an impressive debut at the Wanderers and topped the first-class bowling charts. There's not much more he could have done to make a case for inclusion in the Test team and du Plessis is certain his turn will come, maybe even on this tour. "Duanne is going to play a huge role for us going forward. It's nice to have the opportunity to have him with us this whole series and I think even in conditions where the ball might swing and a bit of pace, Duanne can be a factor to still challenge for a spot in our strongest XI," he said.
But for the first match, South Africa want to go with what they consider to be their most lethal combination, and they have decided that Morkel is part of that. Not only does he have 71 Tests and 242 wickets to his name, but he gets good bounce and, as Dean Elgar reminded on Monday, he has a knack of troubling left-handers, of which New Zealand have three in the top five. "That's one of the reasons he got the nod ahead of Duanne. You've got to make sure you pick your strongest team for the guys you are playing against," du Plessis said.
Morkel surprises left-handers with the angle that he delivers the ball, which "is almost pointing to first slip," according to du Plessis. "It goes either into right-handers or away from left-handers and obviously bounce is a huge factor. He is terrible to face in the nets as a right-hander because you always feel like you can get hit in the ribs and obviously it's the opposite to lefties, it goes away. The angle he can create from around the wicket to get the ball to come in and move away is extremely hard to face," du Plessis said.
If South Africa win the toss, New Zealand will get to experience that first-up. Du Plessis confirmed that he will follow the trend of bowling first, as has been the case in the last 22 Tests played in New Zealand. "That tells a pretty good story and you will have to be pretty brave to go against that," he said. "I assume the conditions up above also plays a role in how it looks."
Cloud has dominated the build-up to the Test but temperatures have plummeted which, as Neil Wagner hinted, suggests swing may not be a factor. However, humidity is set to increase through the Test and it should get slightly warmer so du Plessis will still hope for some movement. But he laughed off a suggestion of perusing the nearest sweet shop - although there is an entire Cadbury's factory about a kilometre away from the ground - for assistance in shining the ball the same way he did in Australia.
"I don't know these conditions so I have to see what the guys think is the best way to shine the ball is but I think saliva is the process that I am following for the next while at least," he joked. "Swinging the ball would be a huge factor in these conditions, so you have to keep the ball as shiny as possible. I don't think reverse swing will play too much of a role in these conditions with the ball getting too wet, so it's just about making the ball swing."