To understand how understated Morne Morkel’s role in the South African side is, you only need to think about how many questions he has been made to answer about Dale Steyn.
At the start of Morkel’s career – which his records show as December 2006 but which was only actually beginning in February 2008 – Steyn was all the rage. He had only played 18 Tests but with two 10-wicket hauls, was already the top-ranked bowler in the world. Morkel was talked up as an ideal understudy for someone of that skill.
Now, as Morkel’s career reaches the same pre-twilight phase as Steyn’s, Steyn is still all the rage. He has played 81 Tests, taken over 400 wickets and is still the top-ranked Test bowler in the world. Morkel is still his understudy, in theory.
The reality is that Morkel may have to step into the senior role at the same venue where Steyn stole the spotlight five years ago. Still, two days ahead of the Nagpur Test, Morkel was asked about more Steyn than himself.
“We will give him until 9am on Wednesday to decide,” Morkel said, before indicating that South Africa won’t actually cut it that fine. “It will be a medical call. You don’t want to select a bowler if he is not 100% fit, because the last thing you want is for him to break down and he can’t bowl.”
Before travelling to Nagpur and after Steyn had already had over a week’s rehabilitation, Russell Domingo said South Africa only had “three fit seamers” and Steyn was not one of them. Steyn has since bowled in both practices in Nagpur but spent more energy in his sparring session with fitness trainer Greg King. The signs are that he won’t be risked, especially with five more Tests to play this season, even though this is a must-win match. With Vernon Philander also out of the series, Nagpur could be Morkel’s moment to defy conditions and make himself the main man.
The surface will not suit Morkel at all. Bounce is expected to be low, carry minimal and pace, absent. Morkel may not be able to hit batsmen on the helmet but he should still be able to find the stumps. In fact, as Daryll Cullinan put it in his column in the Times of India , holding length back could be the best way to take wickets on these surfaces, and Morkel seems to know it.
“We expected no favours. We knew the wickers were going to turn. We need to do well with the reverse-swinging ball. If I can keep the pressure on the batters while the spinners are toiling away and then hope to get one or two myself, that will be ideal,” he said. “With the game plans we are trying to execute it will be important not to bowl wasted deliveries and to make the batsmen play. The margins are quite small in these conditions. But we also need to enjoy ourselves. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity to play in these conditions.”
Of South Africa’s bowlers, Steyn has always been the one who relished playing in the subcontinent, perhaps because he got the most reward. But in this match, Morkel has to take it on himself to embrace the challenge, although for different reasons. He is perhaps not going to be able to make use of reverse-swing as Steyn has done but, for the first time, he is going to be able to lead an attack with his own aggression, especially given the composition of the team South Africa may go for.