Albie Morkel: 'Cricket was a dying sport in Namibia, but people have started watching again'

The team's assistant coach on the significance of reaching the Super 12s, key players like Wiese, Smit and Erasmus, and much else

Soon after ending a professional career that spanned almost two decades, Albie Morkel took up the role of assistant coach at Namibia. The former South Africa allrounder reunited with his old friend Pierre de Bruyn, overseeing Namibia's progress to the Super 12s in their first-ever T20 World Cup. Morkel speaks to ESPNcricinfo about his transition from player to coach, the revival of cricket in Namibia, and the road ahead for him.
Namibia have had a great start to their first T20 World Cup. How special was it to progress to the Super 12s and start that stage with a win over Scotland?
I think it has exceeded all expectations. The way we entered the Super 12s after being well beaten by Sri Lanka, really blown away on that night, and to come back the way we did...Good game against Netherlands, where we were under pressure once again, where David Wiese played a fantastic knock. And then against Ireland on a tough surface, Gerhard Erasmus played a fantastic innings. It was amazing to see you know... Both were high-pressure matches and obviously on a small nation like Namibia, there will always been pressure to perform. The guys stood up to the test and, yes, we qualified to the Super 12s.
The game against Scotland in our eyes was another big one. If you want to look at Associate cricket, Scotland, Ireland (they became a Full Member in 2017, alongside Afghanistan) and Netherlands - they are probably the big three if you want to call them that. And to win against them [Scotland] in the Super 12s is another fantastic effort by the boys.
The celebrations were quite big in the team bus after Namibia qualified for the Super 12s. Can you recall the mood in the camp?
We had our team song. We sing it after every win and it's become the sort of song the guys really enjoy it to participate in. It's all about just building a little bit of team spirit and honouring and celebrating the good times. As we know in professional sport, there are a lot of bad times as well. So, whenever we get the opportunity to celebrate, we must do it fully.
What would this World Cup run mean to the next generation of Namibia cricketers?
If I just look at some of the videos we've received back in Namibia, there's massive support for the team. Guys are really going out and supporting the live matches at certain venues in Windhoek and around Namibia and that's great to see. But you must remember that cricket was sort of a dying sport for the last 18 years in Namibia after the last time they featured in a World Cup in 2003.
So, in the last three years people started watching cricket again, talking about it because the team really did well and it started with getting their ODI status in 2019 again and then having a good qualifiers in Dubai for this tournament. And we sort of kept that momentum going and I think it's massive inspiration in Namibia again. As a young kid, you want to associate yourself with a national hero and that's what these guys have achieved in the last three years. They've become national heroes and I'm sure it's going to stand Cricket Namibia in good stead for the future.
Towards the end of your playing career, you were performing a lot of leadership and mentorship roles. How did you transition from player to coach?
It's a role that I really enjoyed. When I retired from all cricket in 2019, I probably still had a year or two in me to play, but obviously Covid stopped that. I retired before Covid happened, but I wouldn't have played any games that season because of Covid. Looking back at it, it was probably the right decision to stop playing. But I've always felt that it's important for any sportsman to have a sort of a transition into something else. So that was a perfect role for me to sort of not play cricket anymore but still be involved in cricket.
I got the opportunity with Namibia and I grabbed it with both hands because I knew there would be a lot of opportunities for me to share my experience and build something from scratch. Yes, some structures in place, but to get where we are today required a lot of hard work and a lot of thinking. Pierre de Bruyn, the head coach, and the vision he had - it doesn't happen overnight. It involved a lot of hard work, but something that I really enjoyed and something that I possibly would like to enjoy in the future as well.
"The opportunity to bring David [Wiese] and Ruben [Trumpelmann] in came through discussions... Post Brexit, his [Wiese's] other option was to go and play for South Africa again in domestic structures, but playing for Namibia gives him access to international cricket once again.
You and de Bruyn go back a long way. How has your partnership with him been like, this time at the backroom?
Look, we played professional cricket together for many years - first at Easterns and later on at the Titans. We were always good cricket team-mates, we sort of played the same brand of cricket as well. I think we really complement each other. Our personalities are a little bit different, but we definitely complement each other. So, it has really been good and you can only enjoy something if you are really successful and like I said earlier it was a long process, but for the last three years Cricket Namibia kept on raising the bar and they kept on winning more games. And as backroom staff that's what you look for and get your satisfaction out. So, it has been a great journey for me.
Speaking of your personality, JJ Smit came out to the presser after the win over Scotland and said you're the ice to de Bryun's fire
When I played my cricket, I tried to stay really calm in all situations. I felt that helped me and got the best out of me. Not lose control of my emotions and I still take it into the coaching that I do. I try to portray a calm approach and I feel like you can make better decisions when you are calm and that's why I said I and Pierre complement each other. You also need the other side you know. You need that fire from one side, but as long as you have someone who can calm the storm, I think that's a good combination.
What do you think is your strength as a coach?
Look, it's definitely a learning experience for me. I went into coaching without having any experience. All I went with is the experience that I picked up as a player. So, I still try and instill that in the way that I coach. Stuff that I never enjoyed playing cricket...I'm not going to all of a sudden enforce on other people or players. So that's my philosophy. I try to stay up with the trends, I try to be okay with things changing and adapting to that. So, like I said, I try to create an environment where cricketers can grow on and off the field. I don't believe in the way of treating players where they are not allowed to develop as human beings. And it's important for me to sort of keep that across the board.
Namibia's players and staff have been in a bubble for several weeks. Has the management addressed the mental health and well-being of the side?
I think that is very challenging for not only players but for management and coaching staff as well. That was something I experienced for the first time in my life and I must admit I don't think it's sustainable, especially these long bubbles. You must keep in mind that we flew out to Dubai on the 25th of September, so by the end of the tournament, we will be spending about 48 days in a bubble. So, it's pretty tough and it's certainly not natural.
As a cricketer, there's so much pressure on you anyway, if there's no way to release that away from the game, then it just keeps building up and building up. So, I think it's something that hopefully we will see the end of very soon and like I said, I don't think it's sustainable in the long run - just talking to the players who have really struggled. The element of play and go away from the game is not there anymore and it's tough to deal with.
We don't have many options. Lucky the hotel we stay at the moment in Abu Dhabi - they've got a small private beach here, so we've got access to it. The guys mostly spend some time in the water, throwing a ball or bouncing a ball across the water and we've also done a few quiz nights, which was quite good. Other than that, not much time; we try and watch some of the games together as a team in our team room. A few other guys have got table-tennis tables. You could still keep yourself busy but on a long tour you sort of run out of ideas.
You played your last match for the Titans - a friendly T20 fixture - against Namibia. Was there a bit of friendly banter during that match?
I was actually part of the Namibia coaching staff already when I had to play for the Titans. That was sort of a deal I made. Once I retired, our CEO asked me to play one last game because there was always going to be a tour to Namibia and I agreed to that. So, at the time I was really out of touch with playing. I hadn't played cricket for a couple of months then and I got out bowled cheaply by young [Jan] Frylink with an absolute pie (laughs). So, it didn't end well for me, but it was good fun and good banter on the day.
How did you and de Bryun put this team together despite having only a limited pool of players?
That's the thing. You only have so much to work with. We've got 18 contracted players, if I'm not wrong. A lot of credit must go to Pierre like I said for the vision that he had, upskilling the guys, and I think that was the most important part of building this team. The players worked really hard to upskill their games, to get to that level to be able to perform in a World Cup and that doesn't happen overnight. Three years of work in progress. We had limited playing opportunities during the Covid times, so it was tough to keep the guys' morale and their love for the game up. I'm sure it's tough for all teams, but like I said we've got a very small pool to pick from and to keep these guys interested and keep upskilling them was a massive challenge.
The opportunity to bring David [Wiese] and Ruben [Trumpelmann] in came through discussions. We realised that they had family in Namibia and they can qualify for passports. It's not an easy process, though, in Namibia. So, it took a good eight-nine months for them to get their papers and passports ready. They are two high-performance players. One is a strike bowler and one is an amazing allrounder - two key ingredients you need in a team. So, hopefully we can see more performances from them against the bigger sides.
The pandemic must've delayed the passport formalities further. Were you anxious during that time?
It was a big worry because everything got postponed. The biggest plus, however, was the World Cup also got moved back by a year. That gave us time to get those stuff in order. I think if the World Cup had happened last year, we would have been without David and Ruben. They definitely fill key roles in our side. Playing opportunities are limited, but we did have a good stint before the World Cup, playing against Uganda, Zimbabwe Emerging side, South African Emerging side and then we played against Titans from South Africa and the Knights. We did have some good opportunity leading into the World Cup. We got our options and combinations right and got some form of cricket in before the World Cup.
How did you manage to convince Wiese to come and play for Namibia?
Post-Brexit, his other option was to go and play for South Africa again in domestic structures, but playing for Namibia gives him access to international cricket once again. He now has access to playing in a World Cup. He has a chance to be in the eyeballs of a billion people and the performances he has put in at the World Cup so far have definitely upped his brand again. That's the advantage of playing international cricket. If he decided to go and play domestic cricket in South Africa, that would've never happened for him.
Erasmus, the captain, broke his finger during the warm-ups, but has soldiered on. What do you make of his resolve?
He's a massive player for us. He's the leader and a well-respected player. When he injured his finger during the warm-up games, it was a massive blow for us. The initial report from the specialist was for him to return home for an operation. And he will still get that when he's back but but he has decided to stay on and our medical staff is managing that finger as best as we can. So far, his decision to stay on has really paid off. He's an inspirational leader and he's put together a few great performances and hopefully that finger can stay intact for another few games. Then, he'll probably head home to the [operation] theatre and a long recovery period.
Smit is another player who has added all-round value to the side. What are your impressions of him?
The world hasn't seen what JJ Smit can do. He's also struggled with a knee injury in the last couple of years. He's bowling nicely at the moment, but definitely he has something in the tank. He has played two small finishing roles with the bat - 12* [14*] and 30* [32*] - but he's actually a guy that can get 80 off 40 balls when he gets going. He's one of those allrounders that you want in your team and the game is not finished until you get JJ out. He's certainly not a slogger, if you call him that, he can properly hit balls with a lot of power.
Smit is also part of a rare four-man left-arm seam attack. Does that give your bowling line-up a point of difference?
We have four left-armers because we don't have any other right-arm seamer (laughs). Seems like all bowlers in Namibia are left-arm fast bowlers, so yeah David [Wiese] brings that right-arm aspect. We've got another bowler who's not playing at the moment Ben Shikongo; he's a right-hander. It's not really a match-up or something - that's just how our team is set up.
Match-ups, however, have become a massive part of T20 cricket. You need to find that perfect match-up between bat and ball. If you don't do that homework before that time, it could cost you.
How has the Ricelieu franchise T20 tournament in Namibia helped the players?
They are trying to spread out the level of strength a little bit. The players are mixed between the teams; so I think it's still in the early stages. The one challenge that we still have in Namibia is our club cricket's standard is not what we need to improve our players because we must remember there is nothing in between. It's a good initiative and hopefully we can get a stronger pool and maybe we can get a few fringe players from South Africa to really up the level of competition in the tournament. Then, I think it will be even better.
Mickey Arthur got the best out of you when you were playing for South Africa. Then you forged a strong relationship with Stephen Fleming at CSK in the IPL. What have you learnt from them?
Yes, I've connected with them, especially Stephen, but more around the conditions that they faced during the IPL. For us, it's very important to do your homework and I briefly spoke to Mickey the other day when we played against them [Sri Lanka]. What I can take from those two guys and why I rate them highly as coach is one of things they did well was treat every player differently. But in saying that, they make you feel important in the role that you have to play for the team. I think that's very important as a coach; as a player if you know that your coach backs you through thick and thin in your role, then that definitely helps in your own confidence.
You're on a part-time role with Namibia now. Do you see yourself stepping into a full-time role in the near future?
Yes, but the role at the moment is perfect for me. I came and became a coach without any coaching experience, so I still see myself in that learning phase. You can always learn new things every day. So, I started speaking to a lot of people to upskill myself and it's something that I enjoy. I'm a big fan of cricket and a big cricket-watcher. I now enjoyed being involved behind the scenes and hopefully in the future, I can lead a team into the tournament.

Deivarayan Muthu is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo