It has taken Morne Morkel nearly five years of playing ODI cricket to claim his first five-wicket haul, but it has come at an opportune time. Despite enjoying one of the more fruitful seasons of his career, Morkel has wrestled with pressure and criticism over his role in the national side, his ability to deal with pressure and his fragility as a confidence bowler. One performance may not erase all of those concerns, but it will reaffirm Morkel's status as one of the most important ingredients in South Africa's bowling attack.
Morkel's season took off when he claimed what was then career-best figures of 4 for 22 against Australia in anODI in Port Elizabeth,but it did not immediately kick on. Instead, he had a demotion of sorts when the new ball was taken away from him in the Tests. It was given to Vernon Philander, whose extraordinary success meant that all thoughts of resuming the Dale Steyn-Morkel pairing had been shelved for now. Morkel took the news on the chin and said that he did not mind bowling first change as long as he could contribute to the team in some way.
He took 16 wickets in the six home Tests (one more than last season where he claimed 15 in three Tests) but at times looked unsure of his new role. He was expensive and his no-ball problem recurred, most noticeably when it denied him wickets. Morkel had to look to the 50-over game, which has served him so well in the last two seasons, to gain confidence.
In 2010-11, Morkel took 29 ODI wickets at an average of 19.13 in series against Pakistan, India and at the World Cup. He followed it up with 13 wickets in the eight ODIs he played at home this season, his most in a home season in his career. He was used strategically by the new limited-overs captain AB de Villiers and brought on to take wickets at crucial time. Each time the tactics worked, Morkel's self-belief swelled a little more.
Morkel has carried that confidence into the ongoing contest with New Zealand and plugged away in each of the four matches he played before the Napier ODI. On a surface that de Villiers called "by far, the hardest one we have played on in New Zealand," no bowler other than Morkel could have hoped to make it his own.
After opting to take the field first, de Villiers once again showed his creative side with clever rotation of his strike bowlers. Morkel bowled six spells, three of them of one-over each, and had to wait for his fifth before he made a breakthrough. All the while, he used the short ball to excellent effect, letting the opposition batsmen know that he would not let up. Three of the five times, it was the short ball that Morkel claimed a wicket with.
He now has a new career-best, but apart from the impact it will make on his statistics, what this performance will do to his psyche will be more pertinent. Despite his aggression on the field, Morkel is a gentle character off it and someone who cares deeply about the contributions he makes to the collective. Individual achievement is secondary to Morkel in the way batting is to Chris Martin - it's just not something he really thinks much about. What's important to him is how much he can offer to the overall success and this time what he gave was as good as it gets.
"I'm just happy it all came together and I put in that special performance for the team," Morkel said. "It was vital, we were one-nil up in the series and it was a crunch game for us with Eden Park [the venue of the 3rd ODI] being such a small ground, anything can happen. It was important from my personal point of view to put in a solid performance for the team. The team needs their fast bowlers to run in and hit their straps and set the tone for the 50 overs. That's our job."
The real significance of Morkel's first five-wicket haul will only be known later in the series, perhaps even at the end of the Tests. This performance will have given Morkel buoyancy that can only be explained by watching how he progresses in the rest of the series, with the knowledge that he as the architect of one of the most important wins in the tour so far.
Edited by Kanishkaa Balachandran