“I’ve committed this series to try and hit that fuller length and I got that right consistently… the other things I can’t control. Especially over here it was crucial to get that fuller length consistently, so I have worked on that. Hopefully, this is the start of something new now,” Morne Morkel had commented after South Africa's England tour earlier this year, when he picked up 19 wickets in four Tests and was South Africa's Man of the Series.
To say that Morkel's performance was beyond expectations would be an understatement. He wouldn't even have made the starting XI ahead of Duanne Olivier in England had he not showed signs of returning to form in New Zealand earlier in the year.
Yet, he wasn't still considered to be the kind of bowler Rahul Dravid once said was more difficult to face than Dale Steyn. But one series changed it all.
Morkel had found his length.
For long, the media had been saying that the tall fast bowler often failed to land it fuller. But that was his role in the side — to run in against the wind and set up the batsmen for Dale Steyn who enjoyed the fruits of his hardwork — or so he said in 2016.
“I get criticised a lot for bowling the wrong lengths, but the thing people don't understand is, I am not a swing bowler. If I go fuller, I don't swing the ball, so it is actually a free hit for the batsmen. It is that sort of a fight with the media I have had, where they have wanted me to bowl fuller for ten years, or about me being inconsistent. But it wasn't so much the inconsistency, it was just me trying so hard to prove people wrong. As I have got more experienced over the years, I have managed to deal with that (criticism) better,” he had told ESPNCricinfo in 2016.
But ever since he realised in 2017 that he needed to bowl a tad fuller, the results have been spectacular. ESPNCricinfo estimates that Morkel beat the bat a record 95 times in the England series when the ball wasn't going down leg — the most for any bowler in the series across both teams. Of these, 79 of them were when pitched up to the batsman rather than when landing it shorter.
In the series, he eked out a false stroke when pitching it up to the batsman (full + good length) a whopping 131 times and picked up 16 wickets when hitting this length. For instance, against Alastair Cook — whom he dismissed thrice in the series — Morkel hit the ball at a fuller length (balls 6m or fuller from stumps, as per CricViz) 47% of times whereas the same numbers for other bowlers against Cook stand at 32%. By hitting this fuller length and bowling more at the stumps, he not only made Cook play more, but also found enough deviation (0.156 degrees more deviation than before) off the seam.
Given his height, he still generates bounce. The fuller length then gets the batsmen in a tangle — the ball bounces a lot more than batsmen anticipate and they are forced to push with an uncertainty about whether to go back or forward.
Morkel has always been a fine bowler against left-handers, but with this change in length, he is forcing them to play more at his deliveries, especially when charging in from around the wicket, something he has done right through his career.
He has stuck to his new length right through 2017 and the results have been pretty impressive compared to previous years.
Notice the change in the strike rate. And also observe the number of balls he bowled fuller. Interestingly, this is the first time his strike rate has come down to the 40s since 2010, when fuller balls earned him 30 of his 49 wickets, that's an impressive 61.22%.
In 2017, off his 39 scalps, 29 have been off full (good length + full balls) while just 10 have come off deliveries that are shorter in length. Interestingly, just eight of his 39 wickets are that of tail-enders, revealing the kind of influence Morkel has had against the top order.
Against Zimbabwe, in the first innings of the recently concluded four-day Test (two-day if you may call it that), Morkel landed 32 balls on a good length and a further 10 on a fullish length. He picked up all five of his wickets from these lengths and induced an edge or missed the bat 13 times (aside from the five wicket balls).
On the contrary, when he bowled shorter (20 balls), he had just four balls miss the bat and picked up zero wickets.
This has been the trend right through the year for him. He has bowled short of a length at a bowling average of 55 right through 2017 while, for good length balls, that average comes down considerably to 15.26.
Combine this with the fact that he has bowled 1725 balls this year of which 62% have been on a fuller (good + full length) and you see that he has bowled more than 1000 balls on a fuller length and still has an average much better than when landing it shorter, which has been his forte for nearly a decade.
His fuller length has also ensured that he gets more wickets without the help of fielders (other than ‘keeper). In 2017, he had 10 of his 39 wickets bowled/leg before wicket while a further 15 were caught behind. These numbers in 2016 were zero (for bowled or leg before wicket) and three (caught by ‘keeper). In fact, since he made his debut till the end of 2016, he has had a mere 62 wickets as bowled/leg before wicket while just 59 were caught by the ‘keeper.
The percentage increase (of LBW/bowled/caught by ‘keeper) of 12 percent, combined with a superior strike rate and more match-winning contributions, show that Morkel has finally emerged from the shadow of Steyn. All courtesy a minor variation — switching to a better, tempting length.
His role for most parts of his Test career has been to set batsmen up for the likes of Steyn and Vernon Philander. But under Faf du Plessis, with Steyn unavailable most of the time, Morkel has opened the attack and with roaring success. He has been more attacking as a bowler and is now using the short ball only to push the batsmen onto the back-foot.
He has been often termed as an “unlucky” bowler because despite bowling terrific spells at times, he returns with little to show in the wickets column on the scorecard.
For instance, in Cape Town against Australia in 2014, Morkel sent down a searing spell of raw pace and intimidating bounce to Michael Clarke running in from around the wicket. Clarke was struck on his ribs, thighs, back and shoulders but eventually managed to duck, sway, and escape without being dismissed. Morkel, who bowled 23.5 overs that day, had no wickets to show for his effort, while Clarke registered a wonderful 161 which altered the course of the match. The scorecard of the match would not reveal the kind of spell Morkel delivered on that day.
Good enough batsmen can escape from the short ball strategy at times and still score runs. But if you are bowling full at the stumps and making the batsman play all the time, more wickets are bound to come — a fact Morkel is realising now.
His 2017 has had a spectacular end with him decimating the Zimbabweans. In a team of Kagiso Rabada, and Philander, probably even Steyn, Morkel will be the one to watch out for when India come visiting. A year ago, he would have been the least threatening of the four bowlers.