Morne Morkel will not miss strapping his ankles every time he prepares for an international game. He will not miss having wickets chalked off for overstepping, and he will not miss reading the papers and his critics, but he will miss every other thing about playing for South Africa. He will miss warm-ups and long training sessions, he will miss singing the national anthem and leading the team song, and he will miss the camaraderie of a team culture that appears healthier than ever.
“A lot of guys say they don’t miss the game, but I’m definitely going to miss it,” a teary-eyed Morkel said in his final press conference. “There was not one day did I not enjoy coming to nets. I enjoyed everything.”
Though Morkel’s days as an international cricketer ended on Tuesday, his time as a cricketer has not. He confirmed he still has “a few years” of cricket left in him but despite links to Surrey being reported earlier in the week was not at liberty to say where he will spend them. He insisted he has not signed a deal yet, but said his future will be clearer in the next couple of days. Today, though, he just wanted to enjoy the last few hours of being among the team he helped build and reflect on a career that is only being truly appreciated at its end.
After debuting in 2006, Morkel was a key part of Graeme Smith’s plan to build a team around a strong pace battery. He was part of teams that beat England in England and Australia in Australia for the first times since readmission, and after a spending a childhood watching South Africa “have a tough time overseas”, those series wins remain his highlights.
“You have all heard the stories of [Jacques] Kallis and those guys crying in the bus when that happened,” he said. “To create a team culture and identity with Biff (Graeme Smith) and Gary [Kirsten] was special. Since then, walking on the field for South Africa every time was unbelievable.”
Despite the good times, Morkel conceded there were “many lowlights”, including the 2015 World Cup semi-final. “I remember it like yesterday. I had that ease in my heart that [Dale] Steyn would do it and then the way Grant [Elliott] took the game away … The body is still good for one more World Cup but unfortunately I won’t be on that bus.”
That Morkel is as fit as ever has become evident since his career-threatening back injury in 2016. He returned from that stronger and more determined, and with a new approach, given to him by the former South Africa batting coach Neil McKenzie. “In the last 12 months, Neil said I want you to hit that fuller length. I know it’s floaty but if you get for four, it’s okay,” Morkel said. “I started getting wickets that way and things went according to plan.”
His crowning moment came when he took a career-best 9 for 110 at Newlands, in a match that was more fitting as a goodbye, but he wanted to be part of the series finale and tried to involve himself in all the big moments. Morkel was the batsman who came in at No. 11 in the first innings when Temba Bavuma was on 95 and hoped he would be able to get him over the line.
“In Port Elizabeth I sat with Temba in the dugout and we had a nice chat about cricket and his cricket and him wanting to come back from the hand injury,” Morkel said. “In the back of my head, I was hoping Keshav [Maharaj, the No. 10] would form a partnership because I have been with so many batsmen in their fifties and nineties but then I had confidence I would be able to hang around. But then I was facing Pat Cummins and it was a beauty of a ball. I was just upset I didn’t give the crowd the opportunity to cheer for one more Haydos boundary.”
Morkel was dismissed for a first-ball duck and needed more consoling than Bavuma, but not nearly as much as when he entered his final innings and reached a point where he though he would not be able to bowl. Before lunch on the third day, Morkel left the field with a side strain, which an ultrasound confirmed is a grade 1 injury, but returned to take his place with the team on the fourth afternoon and fifth morning.
“It was very important to be on the field; I wanted to be on the field,” he said. “I asked the doc what is the worst that can happen and I was happy to do it.”
And in that he delivered a spell late on the fourth afternoon that showed no sign of injury. He dismissed the Australian openers and wanted to just keep bowling. “I knew once I started bowling if I let the oblique muscle cool down I would be in trouble. Funny enough, I was landing the ball better than normal,” he joked.
In a way, that sums up Morkel’s career. Imperfectly impressive.
He did not get a grand goodbye after Vernon Philander took six wickets in eight overs to leave Australia in tatters but Morkel was the one who left with a full heart. “I’m very happy. Vernon has put in a lot of hard work. That was his moment to get out and shine.”