Morne Morkel will finish his career as South Africa's fifth-most successful Test bowler, and as a member of the elite 300-club after he reached the milestone in his final series. Though he will exit the international stage with a proud record, he also leaves behind a sense of what could have been.
At 1.96m tall, operating on pitches with good bounce, and with the ability to reach speeds of 150kph, Morkel had the makings of an all-time great. But, as part of a pack of superstars like Dale Steyn in the beginning and Kagiso Rabada at the end, Morkel simply "hasn't got the recognition he deserves", according to his first international bowling coach Vincent Barnes. Or the wickets. Barnes believes Morkel could have had "a lot more five-fors, he could have had well over 300 wickets by now", if more had gone in his favour.
Barnes was South Africa's bowling coach, and then assistant coach, from mid-2003 to 2011 and spoke to ESPNcricinfo about everything from his first impressions of Morkel, to the lengths Morkel worked on, to his no-ball problem and some of the funniest moments of Morkel's career, on his way to the 300-mark.
Morkel was raised in a cricketing family and both his older brothers, Malan and Albie, played the game, with Albie becoming a professional first. Though Albie never found a long-term place with the national side, he spent several seasons on the fringes. One summer in the mid-2000s, Albie took Morne to a training session with the national team, where Morne bowled in the nets and Barnes first saw him.
"He was a tall and wiry fast bowler and he bowled for a bit in the nets to our batsmen. When Jacques Kallis walked out the nets, he asked, 'Do you know who this kid is?' I said, 'Yes, he is Albie's brother,' to which Jacques replied, 'If I were you, I would play him in the Test right now.'"
Morkel did not get his break that fortuitously, but by the next summer was in the mix and debuted against India on Boxing Day in 2006.
In his first 14 months as an international, Morkel played only one Test - the India one - but by mid-2007, it became clear that he would have a much bigger role to play. Then-captain Graeme Smith wanted wicket-takers in his attack and on a tour to Pakistan told Barnes and coach Mickey Arthur he wanted a three-pronged pace pack, with Morkel and Dale Steyn in it.
"At the time our attack was Shaun Pollock, Makhaya [Ntini], Andre Nel and we had Andrew Hall around and Dale in the mix," Barnes says. "And then Graeme told us, 'I believe for us to take 20 wickets in every match, we've got to go with Dale, Makhaya and Morne.'"
Barnes was skeptical. "I thought Makhaya is a wicket-taker and Shaun gives us some of sort of stability, and Andre is aggressive in parts and that worked and now Graeme wanted us to play with three opening bowlers who all want to take wickets," he says. "We could have a situation where after five overs, they could be 40 without loss but at the same token, they could be 40 for 3. So that's where it started."
Morkel did not play in the Pakistan series but by 2008, with Pollock retired, he found a more regular place.
"Morne does not show the type of aggression some other bowlers show, that's not his personality. He puts more of his aggression directly into the ball" Vincent Barnes, former South Africa bowling coach
Finding the right lengths
His height and his bouncer made Morkel a perfect complement to Steyn, the swing bowler, but also made it more difficult for Morkel to get wickets. "Dale ran up and searched for wickets because he swings the ball away from right-handers, but Morne is about pace and bounce. For a while, he was confused with his lengths and bowled either too full or too short," Barnes says.
"When you want wickets, you have to get it up there. You have to let batsmen drive you up the ground, batsmen defend you on the front foot because defending on back foot was a little bit easier. It was different with the subcontinent teams, he could come and bounce them, put a short leg in and a leg gully but in order to take wickets on most wickets around the world, you've got to get it up. It's also awkward for a tall man to get the right lengths. You could be bowling half volleys or they could just stand there and defend it. The shorter guys always had to play him off the back foot. In order to draw them forward, he had to really push it up."
Towards the end of his career, Morkel really learnt to bowl fuller, and reaped great rewards, but in the beginning it remained a challenge, as was Morkel's belief that he could swing the ball away from right-handers. Barnes had to convince Morkel that because of his wrist action, he actually took the ball back into the right-hander and away from the left-hander. Once Morkel bought into the theory, he began to understand his own bowling better.
"Morne bowled big inswingers and bought the ball back into right-handers," Barnes says. "And then it's not only about the lengths you've got to bowl, but it's also about the line. When you believe you can swing the ball away and the ball is swinging in, its two different lines completely. And lengths. One is full and swinging away. The other one is slightly shorter. Those were some of the challenges in the early years. We were playing against Bangladesh in 2008 and we magnified his wrists on delivery. I sat with him and showed him his wrists and said with this wrist, there is no way the ball will swing away from a right-hander."
With so much to think about, Morkel did not get as many wickets as he should have, and lagged behind Steyn. He developed some insecurity, which Barnes tried to help him overcome by emphasising how capable he was.
"With not taking a lot of wickets, you always feel you've got to look over your shoulder at who's coming up, who's next. It played a part," Barnes says. "But if you asked batsmen at nets who would you least like to face, our batsmen would say Morne. When Dale and Makhaya would be given the new ball at the nets to one set of batsmen and Morne would be first change to the next set of batsmen, the guys batting second would complain and said they always seemed to be getting Morne. It's the type of conversation I used to have with him, to let him know that if our own batsmen don't like facing you, just think about the opposition."
Morkel also did not have Steyn's overt aggression, and was sometimes criticised for being too much of a nice guy. Allan Donald, who succeeded Barnes, often spoke about trying to bring out the mongrel in Morkel in order to help him get more wickets, but it barely emerged.
"That's not the way Morne is. That's not his character or his personality. He does not show the type of aggression some other bowlers show. He puts more of his aggression directly into the ball. It doesn't mean he is not showing aggression. But I would have liked to see him be a lot more fiery, get in the face of batsmen a bit more. I suppose, sometimes what you do is enough to get in the batsmen's face."
The no-ball problem
But Morkel did enjoy some success. His best match haul was an eight-for against Australia in Adelaide in 2012 and he has five seven-fors to his name. He could have had as many as 14 more Test wickets, too, had they not been taken off no-balls, a feat for which he holds the world record. Barnes tried to help him sort out his overstepping issue on a tour to West Indies, early in Morkel's career.
"For two days, we spent time on it. It's not just about taking a step back. When you put your marker down and you run up to your mark, you take off from a certain foot. Morne hits with his right foot. We found that that momentum, where it kicks you forward, propels you, is where he went over. A no-ball problem stems from where you take off. You need reference points, an umpire, the stumps, the two lines. If you are running up, you get a feel of where you are in relation to a reference point. But it's also just a feel thing. When you're in a game, you have different types of pressure. When you have a batsmen and he is going at you, you can't worry about your foot. You worry about stopping runs."
The funny stuff
In the end, as much as Morkel had to worry about, he also just enjoyed keeping it light and he tried to bring his dry sense of humour into everything. "He is very bubbly and funny," Barnes says.
Morkel's most well-known blooper was walking into the groundsman's shed instead of the change-room at The Oval but he also had one other famous gaffe, in Australia in 2009.
"Graeme had broken his hand in Sydney and the coaching staff said that because Biff can't bat, we need an opener and everyone has to move one up. Morne had batted well in the first innings [he scored a career-best 40] and he said he would like to. We said, 'No ways'. But then with the series won… we thought, okay, fine, because we knew that all his career he had modelled his batting on Matthew Hayden. We used to call him 'Haydos'. Morne let his dad know he was going to open the batting so he could wake up to watch him in South Africa. But by the time his dad woke up and put on the TV, Morne was out."
Morkel was dismissed off his second ball, for a duck.
And soon, goodbye
Morkel may not have taken as many wickets as he could have but he has an impressive 301 of them (so far). And for Barnes, his retirement is coming too soon because he is now in some of the best form of his career. "It's a pity we are going to see the end of him. I was shocked when he announced it," Barnes says. "He has definitely still got a few years in him and wherever he ends up playing, he will add great value. He has been such a great servant to South African cricket."