He perhaps never reached the peaks that were expected of him as a Test bowler, but over the last year he has been exceptional
Three-hundred-and-six wickets from 85 Tests at an average of 27.73 are pretty handy returns for any fast bowler, but as Morne Morkel calls time on his international career, there will always be the nagging feeling that he could have done even better. His pace, and his ability to extract bounce from a length, made him an awkward bowler to face, but South Africa's pace bounty meant he was largely consigned to being their third seamer.
Among Indian fast bowlers no one has taken 300-plus Test wickets at an average of below 29; for New Zealand, only one has achieved the feat. But Morkel played for South Africa, a country with rich fast-bowling traditions, where conditions have generally been favourable for pace, seam and swing. That is borne out by the numbers for the top South African fast bowlers: of their five fast bowlers with 300-plus wickets, three have much better averages than Morkel - Allan Donald (22.25), Dale Steyn (22.32) and Shaun Pollock (23.11). Further down the list - in terms of wickets - are Morkel's current fast-bowling mates, Vernon Philander and Kagiso Rabada, who also average fewer than 23 runs per wicket. When compared against those numbers, Morkel's stats don't look so hot.
While the average of 27.73 is impressive for a career that lasted more than a decade, what has hurt Morkel's stature as a fast bowler is also the relative lack of big performances. In 85 Tests, he took only eight five-fors, which is far fewer than the other top South African bowlers. Steyn has 26 in 86 Tests and Donald 20 in 72, while Morkel's current fast-bowling mates are racking up the numbers too - Philander already has 12 in 53 Tests, while Rabada has nine in 29. Also, among the top eight South African fast bowlers in terms of wickets, only two don't have a ten-for in a Test - Morkel, and Jacques Kallis, for whom bowling was only a second skill.
Most of these other fast bowlers were also in the forefront in the Tests that Morkel played. Of Morkel's 85 matches, Steyn was in the attack alongside him in 62. In those 62 Tests, Steyn took only one wicket less than Morkel did in 85, while Philander was outstanding too in the 42 Tests he played with Morkel, averaging 22.60.
Through much of his Test career, Morkel was consigned to playing the role of the third seamer. Out of the 158 innings in which he bowled, he was the first-change bowler 72 times. In those innings he did slightly poorer than his overall numbers, taking 128 wickets at 29.97. He bowled the first over 41 times and the second 31 times, and on those 72 occasions he was far more effective, taking 156 wickets at 25.73. (That doesn't mean he took all those wickets with the new ball, but only that he was more effective overall in the innings in which he took the new ball.)
The other way to look at this is by using the early overs of a team's innings, when the ball is hard and new, as a parameter. In the first 20 overs of an innings, Morkel has taken 90 wickets at 27.43, which is very similar to his overall career average. Steyn and Philander have done better, with Philander's numbers being especially impressive.
In the first ten overs, Morkel's average improves further to 24.65 (44 wickets), and is actually better than Steyn's (79 wickets at 25.26). However, Philander's numbers are even better (57 wickets at 18.82), and with Steyn and Philander so often in the mix, it is obvious that the best Morkel could do for himself was to be the first-change bowler. In that role, he didn't do a bad job at all, and he is, in fact, the leading wicket-taker among fast bowlers who have bowled first change or later in the last 12 years.
Even though Morkel's Test numbers aren't outstanding by South African standards, he has performed consistently both home and overseas. His overseas average of 29.15 is fairly close to his home average of 26.30, and from his career summary stats, it is clear that he has performed fairly well everywhere, averaging less than 31 on all continents, including 30.85 in Asia.
Most cruelly for South Africa, he will be quitting international cricket when seemingly in the form of his life. Since the start of 2017, when he came back from a career-threatening back injury, Morkel has been in top form, taking 64 wickets from 14 Tests at 21.71, which is much better than his overall career numbers.
During this period only two bowlers - James Anderson and Rabada - have had a better bowling average, among bowlers with 40-plus wickets. In the previous Test, in Cape Town, Morkel was Man of the Match, which was only the third such reward for him in his Test career. If he repeats that performance in Johannesburg, he will join only a handful of others to win the match award in his last Test - and become the first South African to do so. That would be some way to bow out of international cricket.
Morkel in ODIs
Apart from his Test exploits, Morkel was also a fine ODI bowler. Some of his career highlights include:
A haul of 180 wickets, which is the sixth highest for South Africa in ODIs, behind Pollock, Donald, Kallis, Ntini and Lance Klusener.
In the six-year period between January 2010 and December 2015, Morkel took 142 wickets in 80 games at an average of 22.73 and an economy rate of 4.89. Only Lasith Malinga and Saeed Ajmal took more ODI wickets than him during this time. Among the 34 bowlers who took 75-plus wickets during this period, only two, Mitchell Starc and Ajmal, had better averages.
Morkel is the joint fastest to 150 ODI wickets for South Africa, alongside Donald - both reached the mark in 89 games. He was also quickest to 100 wickets for South Africa (59 games), till Imran Tahir got there a match earlier.