To Morné Morkel‚ with love from cricket
There’s a voice distinct to a particular flavour of Joburger‚ a timbre steeped in hard‚ dirty work done in blue overalls and the raw talk of dodgy bars.
It boomed out of the morning sunshine that toasted the lightly populated Unity Stand on the last day of the fourth Test between South Africa and Australia at the Wanderers on Tuesday.
“Morkel warm up!”
Morné Morkel was already doing as he had been told‚ wheeling his albatross arms as he walked towards the boundary at the Corlett Drive End.
As he did so he passed Vernon Philander‚ who was on his way back to his mark to bowl another delivery in a dazzling spell of 32 balls that had earned him six wickets for three runs.
Australia were 100/9.
The remaining four balls of Philander’s over were devoid of the snap‚ crackle and pop that had made him unplayable until then.
Perhaps because No. 11 Josh Hazlewood had suddenly learnt how to bat …
Perhaps because Philander had suddenly forgotten how to bowl …
Perhaps because a fine bowler and a bloody good bloke could take only one more wicket before he walked off the ground as a Test player for the last time …
Whatever it was‚ Hazlewood blocked two‚ left one‚ and played and missed at the other to keep alive the dream of Morkel adding another wicket to his career total of 309.
Then he came bounding in from the Golf Course End‚ almost two metres tall‚ arms and legs at spiky angles‚ like he had done more than 16 000 times in Tests for the past dozen years — and produced a no-ball.
Happily‚ this one did not take a wicket‚ as Morkel has done a record 14 times in Test cricket.
He bowled two overs for seven runs‚ thrice beating Nathan Lyon’s outside edge and once Hazlewood’s. But he didn’t take a wicket.
Then Morkel was switched to the Corlett Drive End‚ from where Philander had wreaked his havoc‚ to begin what would be his last over as a Test player.
Lyon took two off the first ball‚ defended the second‚ edged a drive towards point for no run off the third‚ and then tried to take two from a limp dab past point.
Aiden Markram chased‚ gathered and threw‚ and Quinton de Kock broke the stumps with Lyon out of his ground.
Morkel walked slowly up the pitch to join his celebrating teammates‚ maybe taking his time to preserve a memory of something he would never be part of again.
Asked if he was secretly pissed off at Philander for taking more than his fair share of the available wickets‚ Morkel‚ typically‚ was anything but.
“I’m so happy for ‘Vern’‚” he said. “He’s done a lot of hard work the past couple of weeks and it was his moment today to go out and shine.”
Morkel suffered an abdominal strain before lunch on Sunday‚ the third day‚ and confessed that since then he had been operating on “quite a lot of painkillers and one or two injections”.
But nothing was going to get in the way of him squeezing all he could from his last Test.
“I wanted to be on that field more than anything. My main concern was waking up this morning and not being able to move‚ but I managed to get going again.”
That said‚ he probably wanted to be anywhere else but on the field on Saturday‚ when he came to the crease with South Africa nine wickets down and Temba Bavuma five runs away from a century.
“I sat with Temba in the dugout in PE (where the second Test was played‚ and which neither Morkel nor Bavuma played) and we had a nice chat‚ especially about him coming back from a hand injury and wanting to do well for the country.
“To then be out in the middle with him on 95‚ that chat was in the back of my head.
“I can count the number of times I’ve had to go bat with guys when they’re in the 40s or 90s‚ and I’m like‚ ‘Oh‚ my word’.
“And then I’ve got the quality of Pat Cummins running in. Obviously it’s a beauty of a ball …”
Morkel could do nothing but edge it to second slip to end the innings‚ and his viscerally vocal response to his failure was heard hundreds of metres away.
For all his success as a bowler‚ he has also known disappointment.
Sometimes he hasn’t been picked‚ other times he has kept the pressure on opposing batsmen only to see someone else take most of the wickets.
“There’ve been a couple of mornings where I’ve read the paper and I’ve thought‚ ‘Wait until I see you guys in the street’.
“That’s part of the game. It’s part of the reason why I’ve managed to play for 12 years — I wanted to keep getting better‚ I wanted to prove people wrong.”
The biggest downer might have been what happened late on the night of March 24‚ 2015 in Auckland‚ where Grant Elliott hit Dale Steyn over his head for six with a ball left in the game to earn New Zealand victory in the World Cup semifinal.
“I remember it like yesterday‚ standing at third man at Eden Park; ‘Steyntjie’ running in‚” Morkel said.
“I had peace in my heart that ‘Steintjie’ was going to do it. The way Grant took the game away from us was emotional.”
What won’t Morkel be sorry to say goodbye to?
“The no-balls are definitely one thing; I’ve worked bloody hard on getting that sorted.
“I strap both my ankles for every game. It’s a lot of strapping‚ and when you stand for two days in the field it does get uncomfortable. So I’m not going to miss the strapping.”
But‚ for this tall drink of water‚ the glass will never be anything other than full.
“A lot of guys say they don’t miss the game‚ but I’m definitely going to miss it.
“Not one day did I not enjoy coming to nets.
“I enjoyed warm-ups‚ I enjoyed everything.
“I’ve still got love for the game.”
His captain‚ Faf du Plessis‚ didn’t doubt it: “He lives for the team; he trains day in and day out.
“Young guys like ‘KG’ (Kagiso Rabada) would have learnt a lot from his worth ethic.
“I ask a lot about character from the team‚ and there are a lot of instances where guys will hurt but they will push through.
“That’s where I believe you get strong as a team‚ and Morné proved that in his last Test‚ bowling with an injury‚ bowling at 60 or 70% and still wanting the ball.
“Today I offered him some rest but he said he would like one more bowl.
“That shows a lot about his character.”
Even though it wouldn’t always have felt like it‚ cricket loved Morkel too.
Still does. Always will.