Six weeks into IPL 2020, Chris Morris has been hailed as the change Royal Challengers Bangalore needed. He provides spark with the new ball, cleans up lower orders at the death, gives them an imposing presence on the field with his rocket arm, and brings with him the potential to be a finisher. To understand why he has been such a key part of the jigsaw, let us rewind to December 2019.
It is the build-up to the mini-auction in Kolkata. The Royal Challengers want Morris at any cost. At each of their mock auctions, the price for him has shot through the roof. However, Mike Hesson, the director of cricket, keeps going. It isn't out of desperation, but because of their innate belief on an X-factor player.
Forget about having someone of the skillsets Morris has - 140kph plus, can turn up at the death and nail yorkers, besides hitting big from the outset. The Royal Challengers have struggled to just have a consistent allrounder in their set up. In 2016 and 2017, they had Shane Watson. Then in 2018 and 2019, they had Marcus Stoinis. Neither thrived, for a variety of factors - not least being the chop-and-change policy they've since shelved for consistency. Kolkata Knight Riders have Andre Russell. Mumbai Indians have Kieron Pollard. Chennai Super Kings have Dwayne Bravo. There's a reason the Royal Challengers want him.
On auction day, the Royal Challengers enter the bidding at INR 1.7 crore, and go right through to the end. They even discuss among themselves the prospect of placing a next bid after raising the paddle at INR 10 crore. Mumbai Indians back out, Hesson and Katich quietly celebrate. They've got their man.
Fast-forward to September 2020. Royal Challengers have just finished their mandatory quarantine, and are training at the ICC Academy in Dubai. Morris is among the last to turn out to bat, after an exciting first net session with the ball. As Morris swings hard, he feels a pull in his stomach and immediately knows something is off. A precautionary scan reveals a strain to the stomach muscle. It's just week one, and while there's three weeks to go for the tournament to begin, Morris isn't part of much of the build-up. But because he's such an integral member of the squad, they're giving every opportunity to put himself back on the field.
Sending him home after spending tons and tons of hours of time and energy at the mock auction, real auction, over numerous zoom sessions Hesson and Katich conducted in preparation for the season - both in March and August - individually to ensure all their players are up for it mentally, wasn't even an option. It's this sentiment of being made to feel wanted that seals Morris' bond with his new franchise, his fourth in the IPL after the Super Kings, Rajasthan Royals and Delhi Daredevils.
"Give me somebody who doesn't like the feeling of being wanted - whether in sport, in a relationship or just in life in general," Morris asks. "It's just nice to feel important. The medical staff were incredible. For them to get me back on the park was really good. I've never had that type of injury before. It was a new thing for me."
The Royal Challengers' physio office in their hotel wing is open at 7am every day. Players zoom in and out for their sessions, and Morris is regular. Six weeks of exercises, rehabilitation, rest - where he doesn't try to risk himself to the extent of having a swing on the golf simulator - is all worth it. Morris is fit, and the Royal Challengers are readying themselves to bring him into the competition five games in. It may seem all good now in hindsight that they waited on him, but Morris himself was full of apprehension as he raced against time to be fit.
"I didn't know what to expect or how long it was going to take," he says. "We worked really hard. It was a tough four and half weeks for myself and the medical team. We grafted in the gym, we grafted on treatment tables. It was day-in, day-out. I had the machine in my room treating myself throughout the night. Literally, I would wake up every two hours and ice myself throughout the night. It was a hard graft and here we are. We are happy to be playing. As a medical team, they were all happy I can get back on the field and start playing."
Morris immediately impressed in his first outing, against his former team Super Kings, by opening with 3 for 19 off his four overs. Since then, he has delivered one telling performance after another. So far, he has nine wickets in six outings. More than 50% of his 120 deliveries so far have been dot balls. His powerplay economy is an outstanding 4.5, with his death-overs economy pegged at 6.38.
His Smart Economy of 3.67 is second-best to team-mate Washington Sundar. This component factors in the match economy, the phase of the game where he bowled and the pressure on his team after he bowled his overs. All of this points to something having worked for him lately. For Morris, this isn't about the technical adjustments he has made. It's mental. And it revolves around the philosophy that the next ball is the most important ball he'll bowl.
"Ah, I think I'm in a blessed position, to be honest," he says. "So, there are high pressure points that you want to be in as a cricketer. That's where you want to get tested as a cricketer. You get to bowl fast, bowl yorkers and smash sixes (laughs). What more do you want? I have been very fortunate. I haven't been really smacked (around in IPL) yet, but that's going to come unfortunately. That's the nature of the beast -- the IPL.
"I just have to keep my clarity. The moment you lose clarity of what you want to do, that's when everything gets side-tracked. The bounce-back ability needs to be good. As a new-ball and death bowler, you are going to get hit for six, you will get inside-edges for fours. It is about how you fix the next ball. If the next ball gets hit for a six, then just bowl the next, keep repeating, give your best. You have to continue to get better. Like I said, I've been very lucky, I have got wickets, I haven't been hit for runs. I hope it continues, if it doesn't it is about how you limit it. It is a tough game, but I enjoy doing it."
Morris agrees all the change in thought process has taken a while coming. A forced break due to Covid-19 somewhat hampered his plans. At 33, he's more than past the halfway stage of his career, but Morris isn't on the lookout to make up for lost time. Having been injured at various times in his career, experience, he says, has taught him to look at every opportunity as a blessing and how not playing with the fear of injuries and with a clear thought process of what he wants to execute in every game helps him balance out the good days with the bad.
"I haven't had muddled messages coming around," he says. "It's like 'this is what I want to do', 'this is how I want to do', and then you execute. If something goes wrong, you then go on to Plan B, because we have a Plan B. Or else, Plan C. What has worked for me is a lot of clarity and what the execution needs to be. We do a lot of homework. Everything that happens behind the scenes, we work so hard that by the time we get to the game, we know what we want and then it's up to us to execute. Our plans are very clear.
"Once you're clear about what you need to do, it's a lot more easier for Virat (Kohli) to worry about field placements and stuff because most of us know what to do by the time we get to the top of our mark. Playing under Virat is very good. The biggest thing for me is he expects excellence, he expects you to put the work in because he puts the work in. Like I said, behind the scene we're putting all the work in. We're thinking about the game even before we get into the game. So it's been really good to play under him. He just exudes that energy that he wants to win all the time, like just want to get into the game. That's what his attribute to the team is apart from performance. "
Clear plans, hard work and fitness aside, Morris is soaking in the experience of mentoring young Indian fast bowlers. In an age where 'mentorship' is loosely thrown around every senior player, the Royal Challengers have walked the extra mile in ensuring senior members of their squad spend time with their paired-up juniors. It doesn't necessarily revolve around just skillsets or fitness. It can be life lessons too, chats about what makes them tick, what doesn't. How their life is back home outside of cricket. Incidentally, these were the lessons Morris says he learnt from "legend" Dale Steyn, who he now can call a friend. Morris couldn't have imagined, when he was growing up in the diamond town of Kimberley, wanting to bowl fast, that he could even have a conversation with Steyn. Today, he has shared dressing rooms with him at South Africa and now at the Royal Challengers.
"Dale is a legend. Why I have been lucky is because he is not just a mentor, he is actually one of my friends," he says. "I pinch myself every now and then and say, Dale is my friend. We love to spend time and do things together. We are also very similar in our interests of sport. We also have similar music tastes. So, we click very well and we speak a lot of rubbish together. I'm very lucky not just to have him in the change room but also as my mate. His inputs have been so important and valuable. For me, more important for me with Dale is not the stuff that we talk on the field but more the stuff the stuff we talk about off the field, in life in general. For a guy who's been playing since he was 20 and to almost being 47 now, I'm joking. For him to be 38 and still do what he does is incredible. The stuff that we talk about and the stuff he brings to the team is invaluable."
What about life in a bubble? Surely that would've been challenging in the midst of a demanding tournament?
"It's been different, at the beginning I honestly thought it'll be a lot worse, I will get bored and lose my mind, but luckily we've got a good bunch of guys," he says. "The RCB management have been unbelievable by putting together that team room. That has been amazing. We've got a pool to ourselves, we've got a private beach. We had a barbeque [last week], all of us outside. It was awesome with cricket on the big screen. We've got a golf simulator, so we have got everything that we want. We're lucky with the way RCB has spoilt us players, and all the effort they have put in to keep us happy and comfortable has been incredible. So for us, the bio-bubble has been really cool, a lot of fun and hopefully if we get to spend an extra week, hopefully we do, it'll be quite nice."