Albie Morkel has been living on reputation rather than results over the last year of international cricket. Whenever he walks to the crease there is an expectation of a barrage of sixes, but recently he has struggled to justify the hype. However, he picked a good time to find his range again as a thumping 18-ball 40, including five sixes, transformed a workable South Africa total into a more imposing 170 against New Zealand.
The straight and midwicket boundaries that Morkel targeted are not huge at the Kensington Oval but he cleared them with ease as New Zealand's death bowlers couldn't find their yorkers. He came in slightly earlier than normal when Herschelle Gibbs fell in the 14th over, but saved his major onslaught until Tim Southee bowled the penultimate over and struck three sixes straight down the ground.
"We've been searching for the right combination and we certainly started a little rusty in this tournament," Graeme Smith said. "The platform was there for Albie, the guys up front had done a really good job setting up the game. It was nice to back him and to see him play a knock like that was terrific."
Since Morkel made his Test debut against Australia at Cape Town in March 2009 his form for South Africa has taken a plunge, to such an extent that he has been omitted for the one-day leg of the West Indies tour which follows the World Twenty20. He hit a half century in his only Test to date, but since then his lone fifty has come against a weak Zimbabwe attack in Benoni. This innings of 40 is his second-best international effort for 15 months. It was more than due.
"It's nice to perform for your country and I was pleased to come in and play an innings under pressure during a World Cup," Morkel said. "But I've never really felt out of form the whole season so it's just been about trying to get a start. Once you get a performance you hope for a rolling effect so hopefully this can carry on."
Daniel Vettori knew Morkel's innings was the crucial phase of the game and it changed the momentum significantly going into New Zealand's run chase. "It's a very small ground and when you have a destructive hitter like Albie Morkel it's a very bad combination if you miss, so those last few overs put us in a bad position," he said.
"It's the nature of Twenty20 that you can't get it right every time but there are crucial situations when you have to and this time it was the last four or five overs that cost us. It wasn't what I expected or what I want and we have to improve pretty quickly."
Morkel had shown glimpses of a return to something closer to his power-packed best with 198 runs at a strike-rate of 151 for Chennai Super Kings during the IPL where he hit more sixes (13) than fours (10). However, it's at international level, where there is a higher sustained quality than the IPL, where Morkel has to reclaim his standing.
It has made for a good 48 hours for the Morkel clan following Morne's four wickets against Afghanistan. Albie, though, is going through a vital phase of his career. He has always been classed as an allrounder but his bowling has regressed alarmingly. In the opening game of the tournament he was entrusted with the final over against India and was duly dispatched for 19. South Africa lost the match by 14 runs, although it wasn't all down to Morkel as Rory Kleinveldt was also hammered.
He wasn't afford much respect by Afghanistan, either, who took him for 20 in two overs despite being 33 for 8 when he came onto bowl. His first ball was a powder-puff on off stump which Hamid Hassan launched straight into the Worrell, Weekes and Walcott Stand. Against New Zealand he wasn't used by Smith until the final over and with 27 needed it would have a mightily poor effort to lose the match, but Morkel's nerves were still obvious when his first ball was swung away for four.
He didn't approach the crease with much confidence and sent the ball down at gentle medium pace. When the equation came down to 22 off three deliveries the match was safe, but then Nathan McCullum hit a six and Smith's effort to encourage his bowler was clear. South Africa are well aware of Morkel's match-winning ability and the balance he adds to the side, but in a format that can be changed with a brief flurry of sixes he is worth having for his batting alone.