Dale Steyn is three wickets shy of going past the legendary Shaun Pollock to become South Africa's most successful Test bowler.
Social media, South African fans and anyone remotely linked to cricket has been busy calculating if Steyn is fit enough to return and usurp Pollock's record.
Steyn, unfortunately, isn't fully fit yet and continues to watch Tests from the sidelines. Unsurprisingly, Morne Morkel, forever the wingman to South Africa's more celebrated fast bowlers, sat at 297 Test scalps before the start of the Cape Town Test, three short of becoming the fifth South African to 300 Test wickets in his last Test series. But very few spoke about his upcoming landmark.
This has been the story of Morne Morkel's 12-year long career. Quite often, he has done as well, if not better than some of the bigger names in South African cricket, but the spotlight has failed to fall on his tall, lanky frame.
His name is rarely spoken about in the same breath as Dale Steyn's. The latter is obviously a match-winner in his own right, a lethal, venomous fast bowler with an unmistakable talent to take wickets. But what about Morkel? Would Steyn be as effective without the unwavering backing of Morkel?
“I was something different to Dale (Steyn) and Vern (Philander) or Makhaya (Ntini) or Jacques (Kallis). I was getting the guys on the back foot. Dale then got the ball a little further up and swung the ball. That made us a lethal combination with the different styles we brought to the middle. My aim was just to help the bowler at the other end. If we were leaking runs, to bring the run rate back. For me it is always about bowling 100%”, Morkel once told ESPNCricinfo.
He has coped severe criticism from the media for primarily bowling a back of a length channel instead of going fuller. However, rarely do people understand that his palpable strength lies in the extra bounce he generates courtesy a 6-foot 5-inch frame and he religiously backed his strengths.
Wasn't he merely playing to the team's needs for over a decade?
In the latter half of his career, Morkel has gone fuller and wickets have come to him in truckloads. With bowlers like Makhaya Ntini, Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander in South African ranks, Morkel barely needed to attack and go fuller for over a decade.
With Steyn out of the picture and Rabada more or less similar to him, Morkel learned to go fuller and the rewards followed. From unsung hero to a leader of the attack, Morkel transformed quite quickly. His job had always been to soften up batsmen for the bowlers at the other end to take wickets and he had executed it without a blip.
While it led to a lot of criticism, South Africa, and Dale Steyn in particular, for sure knew what Morkel meant to them. Nursing an injury, Steyn was present at Cape Town to witness Morne Morkel go past 300 Test scalps, wearing a jersey sporting Morkel's name.
Morkel has been unheralded for so long now that even in his last series, he was dropped in Port Elizabeth in the second Test to accommodate a young Lungi Ngidi.
While most legends find such decisions a bitter pill to swallow, Morkel is of the kind to shrug off such instances and come roaring back. In Cape Town, Morkel, on 297 Test scalps, wasted no time in getting to the coveted 300-wicket landmark on Day 2.
He came in after an engaging Kagiso Rabada-David Warner battle and bounced out Usman Khawaja to further peg back the Aussies, close to the lunch break. But it was post this that Morkel really got under the skin of the Australians.
With Rabada and Steve Smith hogging the spotlight, Morkel grabbed the big scalp of Australia's captain, forcing him to nick to gully off a delivery that shot up from outside off-stump.
When Shaun Marsh and Cameron Bancroft fought back with a half-century stand in quick time, skipper Faf du Plessis once again turned to his most experienced fast bowler.
Morkel had always been a menace to left-handed batsmen. His two wickets in the day had both come of shorter deliveries and it would have been perfectly alright for him to stick to that channel to Marsh.
However, experienced as he is, Morkel came around the wicket and enticed Marsh to slash at a wide, fuller delivery, something the southpaw had resisted for the 62 balls he had faced up until that point. But Morkel's height and the unexpected length he delivered forced a mistake, and the extra bounce at Cape Town did the rest.
Despite 300 Test scalps against his name, he might still not be sung in the same verse as Dale Steyn or Shaun Pollock, but years down the line, Morkel would enjoy his evenings recollecting the respect showered on him on this day. He joins an elite club of South African pace bowlers — Shaun Pollock, Allan Donald, Makhaya Ntini and Dale Steyn — all of whom have achieved the feat.
“Morne is the toughest fast bowler that I have faced. I have also played Dale Steyn, Brett Lee and Shoaib Akhtar but Morne is the best I have faced,” Indian opener Gautam Gambhir had once stated.
Gambhir isn't the only one who shares the sentiment. Rahul Dravid, Cheteshwar Pujara, David Warner and quite a few others felt Morkel was tougher to face than Steyn.
“As good as they (Dale Steyn and Makhaya Ntini) were, it was the first change bowler, Morne Morkel, who gave me the toughest test during that innings and whenever else I faced him,” Marcus North, former Australian middle-order batsman, wrote for the Cricket Paper once.
Even if a legendary status eludes him after his final bow in international cricket, Morkel will retire knowing that his absence would make quite a few batsmen pretty happy. In an era where jibes, taunts and sledges make headlines, Morkel let the cherry do the talking and how.
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