<
>

'I have peace of mind that I can play Tests again' - Morkel

Morne Morkel returned to the Test XI in Dunedin after over a year AFP

The job of the crowd at a sporting event is to create the best possible atmosphere for their team. They need to be noisy in their support of the home team, nicely nasty when the opposition are around and never short of a contribution to the sporting spectacle in front of them. Dunedin's university crowd got that exactly right, especially when it came to Morne Morkel, who had a cunning plan to win them over.

"The best way to get them on your side for the rest of the day is to do something funny and I thought I will join the crowd and have a down-down," Morkel said, referring to his antics on the third afternoon when the students were sculling their beers on the embankment and a thirsty Morkel suspected if he wanted to quench his thirst, he would have to copy their methods.

"I knew if I went to the cooler box, they were going to shout 'down down'. It has happened to me before, in Australia," Morkel said. "After that Faf came to me and he wanted me to bowl another over but I was too bloated. So I said, 'Faf, you need to give me half an hour here.'"

Luckily for Morkel, a full stomach - and not his bad back - was the only thing that kept him from bowling at that point as he confirmed his return to the Test cricket, after 14 months out of the side. Morkel had not been part of the Test XI since January 2016, had not played an international match since June last year and had been nursing a bulging disc in his back since. During his rehabilitation, he had played just one full first-class game and coming into this Test series, the only game time he had was two List A matches.

"I was more nervous that I don't pull up [a back strain]. That's the last thing you want, especially when you are playing three seam bowlers. I was a little bit nervous because I hadn't been in the field for longer than 50 overs. In the back of my mind it was going to be a real test going for more 20 overs with the ball and 100 overs in the field," Morkel said. "One of my biggest worries was that in Dunedin I knew it was going to be cold, so I was wondering if my muscles would recover. There were a lot of ifs and buts."

In total, Morkel spent 102 overs in the field and bowled 24 overs. Results aside, just to have put in that amount of time is reason enough for Morkel to declare his comeback a success. "For me to break that mental barrier was quite pleasing.and now I can put those things to rest and just focus on cricket," he said. "All those demons that were on my mind, I managed to control it and get through it. I have that peace of mind that I can play Test matches again."

Over the last few months, Morkel has received some medical opinion that his injury would end his career. "In the back of my mind, I didn't believe it," he said.

But he knew that in order to return, he would have to do extensive strengthening work. "The main issue was that my lower core was weak and in a way I needed to rewire my body," he explained. "I had so many bad movements, mechanically with my body that created tension and inflammation. I had a massive bulge in the top of the core which caused spasms and all those sorts of things."

Part of Morkel's recovery has included the use of Pilates, some of it has concentrated on his action and a lot of it has been in his mind. "I've had a lot of work in getting certain muscles to switch on and switch off at certain times," he said. "I needed to find a way to relax my upper core so my lower core could work."

Getting that right took time, which is why Morkel's return was postponed several times. He was originally due to play Tests in Australia in November last year and went on the tour but only took part in the warm-up matches, he was then ruled out of the Sri Lanka series at home with a view to playing in the ODIs but a recurrence of symptoms meant he could only return for these Tests. And still, he cannot be absolutely certain the issue has disappeared.

"I don't think I have solved it. I need to take a lot of responsibility now, to look after my body. I can't take any shortcuts with my training and my gym work. I need to manage my load with cricket outside the South African season and just be clever with that," Morkel said.

He is already doing that. Morkel opted out of this year's IPL auction with a view to prolonging his international career as long as possible. "Because I haven't played any cricket for South Africa for so long, if I put my name in the auction, it will be frowned upon, plus we have some big cricket coming in England. I thought if I go well in this New Zealand series, then I've got four weeks at home to really get strong. For me that was the important thing: to get myself fit for South Africa and to play well for South Africa," Morkel said.

He has not put a timeframe on how much longer he is looking to play at the highest level beyond "as long as possible". But he is expecting to take his place in the team later this week at the Basin Reserve, where he took career-best figures of 6 for 23 the last time South Africa were in New Zealand, five years ago. He hopes he can draw on his experience to enjoy similar success this time.

"I bowled quite well in that [2011-12] series and for some reason my length was a touch fuller. Depending on the sort of surfaces they are going to prepare - and it looks like they are going to go with slow, turning wickets - it's going to be crucial for me to play with my lengths. Even though It looks pretty and you can control the right with back of a length, I reckon if you want to strike and you want to get wickets you have to go a touch fuller. It worked for me last time," Morkel said. "Then again, I also need to play to my strengths. If I just bowl full, its going to be easy for the batsmen so I need to bowl that intimidating length and get the guys on the back foot and try and strike from there. It's about the intensity that I bowl with and to have body language. It's about reading the situation and knowing when to go fuller."

And about reading the crowd and when to join in the fun. Now that Morkel is in the twilight years of his career, he wants to do that as much as possible.