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Feature

The quick and the deadly

Their physical make-up and bowling actions might be different but when it comes to taking wickets and making batsmen quake, Steyn and Morkel seem identical

Telford Vice
Telford Vice
05-Jul-2010
Steyn and Morkel: get in their faces at your own risk  •  AFP

Steyn and Morkel: get in their faces at your own risk  •  AFP

You could say there are six inches of separation between Morne Morkel and Dale Steyn. Morkel looms large at 1.96 metres, or 6ft 5in. That's significantly loftier than Steyn, all 1.81 metres or 5ft 11in of him.
Loose-limbed and lanky, Morkel sticks out even in the rarefied ranks of fast bowlers. But if he played in the NBA, where the average height is 2.01 metres, he might be considered on the shorter side of tall. Put the more wiry Steyn in the real world and he's a strapping six-footer almost. However, in the elongated circles of those whose vocation it is to bowl fast, he's vertically challenged. Perhaps the great leveller is Malcolm Marshall, over whom Steyn would have towered by an entire centimetre.
Anyone out there know of a batsman who called Marshall "Shorty" and emerged unbloodied? Thought not. Don't try that with Steyn, either. It would be just as painfully stupid to ask Morkel, as you make your way to the crease, what the weather is doing up there.
In fact, it's Steyn's relative lack of height - locked and loaded as it is with his other attributes - that makes him so dangerous. Were he taller, chances are he wouldn't whip through his action as tautly and cleanly as he does. He would therefore generate less pace. The converse applies to Morkel. He creates uncertainty for batsmen in similar fashion to a spinner who flights the ball above their eyes. The difference is that, once launched, the missile hurtles towards its target at breathtaking speed.
Together Steyn and Morkel form perhaps the most feared pair of assassins currently playing international cricket. So far their partnership is worth 22 Tests, in which they have combined to take 195 wickets at an average of 25.44.
Steyn is similarly successful whether Morkel is around - when his average is 23.15 - or not, when his wickets come at 23.13 apiece. But Morkel would seem to be a more threatening bowler in Steyn's presence. His average when they bristle in the same Test attack is 28.60, compared to 30.77 overall. That said, Morkel has played just four of his 26 Tests without Steyn.
Both play their first-class cricket for the Titans, where Richard Pybus presided over their rise to prominence. "Steyn was incredibly raw when he first came up," said Pybus, the former Titans coach. "He was a talent, but he didn't know how to win games or even how to construct spells. I was very protective of him when I was asked about him, because he needed to do his learning."
Steyn made his Test debut in South Africa's home series against England in 2004-05. He took eight wickets in the three matches, and conceded 416 runs. Sixteen wickets followed in his next rubber, against New Zealand, but he was still expensive. Four more series passed in which Steyn's wicket tally refused to reach double figures. He hit the big time in two Tests against New Zealand in 2007-08, taking 20 wickets at the stupendous average of 9.20. His lessons learnt, Steyn roared to 200 wickets in 39 Tests.
Morkel leapt to international prominence when he made India's top order look gun-shy while playing for a Rest of South Africa XI in Potchefstroom in 2006-07. He was duly rushed into the team for the second Test as a replacement for the injured Steyn.
Almost inevitably, Morkel's premature elevation had its downside. "Unfortunately for Morne, a lot of his growing up has happened in the shop window," Pybus said. Not that anyone has doubted that Morkel is bound for glory, as he suggested with his match haul of 12 for 91 in the decisive game of the 2008-09 SuperSport Series between the Eagles and the Titans in Bloemfontein. "He was world-class; everybody else was just first-class," Pybus remembered.
"He was world-class; everybody else was just first-class"
Richard Pybus on Morne Morkel in a domestic game
Steyn might seem the more dangerous of the two to some. Not to Pybus. "Morne has closed the gap on Dale," he said. "He's a strike bowler, he's nobody's first-change bowler. He needs to get that new ball in his hand and let it rip. I think he's found himself as a young man, but he's still a few five-wicket hauls from the finished article."
The value of Steyn and Morkel to South Africa's cause was only made plain in their recent Test series in the Caribbean, where the West Indian pitches were even more flat than the home side's batting. Steyn took 15 wickets and Morkel 14. The other 20 were scattered among five bowlers.
Equally lethal though South Africa's new-ball pair appears to be on that evidence, they are differently engineered under the skin.
"Dale's a bit of a freak," said Grant Compton, the South African team's strength and conditioning expert from 2007 to 2009. "His fast-twitch fibres are very well-developed. That makes him an explosive cricketer. But he also has amazing endurance.
"He hyper-extends his arm when he bowls, which means his arm bends as he delivers the ball, but not in an illegal way. It actually bends backwards. That's why sometimes it looks like he's slinging the ball. Also, he glides into the crease. He doesn't ram his front foot down, and he has a very efficient action.
"Morne has awesome levers and he works very hard at staying in top-class shape. He does put his front foot down hard, and his action is less efficient than Dale's. The ground reactions going through his body are far greater than in Dale's case.
"But he gets great purchase off the pitch and he extracts a lot more bounce than Dale. It matters so much that Morne is really committed to his conditioning. That is undoubtedly the key to his success."
All of which will come as cold comfort to Test batsmen everywhere. The prospect of Steyn, 27, and Morkel, 25, ganging up on them for years to come can't be something to look forward to. But best they get used to the idea. That is, after everything, the long and the short of it.

Telford Vice is a freelance cricket writer in South Africa