As Morne Morkel begins his final Test match, Ben Jones looks at the numbers to determine if the South African stands up as a legend of the game.
If Morne Morkel had never taken a Test wicket, there’s a chance he’d still live on in cricketing folklore. In many ways, even now, 306 wickets since his 2006 Durban debut, the most striking aspect of Morkel’s career is his sheer physical presence. At 196cm tall, he is actually one centimetre shorter than fellow cloud-botherer Stuart Broad. Yet incredibly, Morkel still releases the ball an average of 20cm higher than his English contemporary, with his tall, proud action emphasising and exaggerating his physical attributes in a manner that is globally unmatched. Indeed, the graph below charts the average length and bounce of seamers to have played 20 Tests since 2010, and shows the fact that Morkel gets more bounce than any of his colleagues around the world.
Generally, at the extremes of technique you find quirky players, unusual body types or homespun methods; think Malinga’s low-slung arm, Smith and Chanderpaul shovelling the ball into the leg-side, or the other-worldly spin imparted on the ball by Murali. Yet Morkel’s undoubted charm is that he seems in many ways to resemble a lab-created fast bowler, a towering colossus firing 90mph darts at a good length. Rather than taking a small element of cricketing technique and blowing it up beyond all proportion, Morkel’s action sometimes looked like the frenetic endpoint of quick-bowling evolution. If Morne hadn’t come along, fast bowling mythology would have seen fit to invent him.
Morkel will end his Test career at some point the next five days in Johannesburg with with over 300 career wickets and a bowling average of under 30, as well as having been part of a South African Test team which under Graeme Smith’s leadership went to No.1 in the world. These are impressive numbers and achievements, unmatched by many, and he will go down as a significant member of SA cricket post-readmission. Yet a more pervasive feeling is that whilst Morne manages to make the absolute most of his height, he’s not been able to do the same with his cricketing ability. The lingering question remains: is Morne Morkel a great bowler?
In some respects, it’s a facile question. Since the turn of the millenium, only six fast bowlers have taken more wickets than Morkel, and only two (James Anderson and Dale Steyn) have done so with a lower bowling average. Yet compared to those other modern “greats”, he struggles to make the grade, rarely sustaining his absolute top form for prolonged periods. He has averaged less than 25 with the ball in only three calendar years throughout his career. By comparison, Anderson has done it on six occasions, while Steyn has remarkably done it eight times. Even those who graced the Test arena for relatively short periods arguably burned brighter than Morkel – Mohammed Asif matched Morkel’s tally in a career which lasted only five years.
For many, watching Morkel’s career has been like watching a plane heading full throttle down the runway, but without ever actually taking off. Why?
Perhaps it’s an element of his nice-guy reputation, and that he never quite mastered the South African conditions he calls home. A Test bowling average of 26.29 on South African soil sees him with only the 59th best average in the country across history, for those with 20 wickets.
Perhaps it’s a technical issue, and an apparent resistance to conventional cricketing wisdom. Across his career, Michael Holding has lamented Morkel’s reluctance to bowl a fuller, “more wicket-taking” length. To some extent these comments are founded on fact. Morkel does take wickets more regularly with a fuller length, every 42 deliveries in fact – but they also come at a substantially higher average than when he digs it in short (34.14 compared to 28.51).
Crucially, you can justify Morkel’s approach to this matter by comparing his career to the other tall, faltering seamer at the top of that length-v-bounce graphic; Steven Finn. A man who took wickets so regularly (every 40 balls) and at such a cost (3.96rpo) that he was dropped from the England team, and has barely played a Test since. Finn’s refusal (or inability) to bowl more economically, with less immediate threat, was the given reason Andrew Strauss saw fit to drop him, and is arguably the reason Finn has never full recovered his place in the Test team, despite his substantial natural talent. Contrastingly, Morkel’s shorter length allowed him to control the run-rate, maintain pressure for the bowler at the other end, and thus maintain his place in the team. His longevity is not something to be glossed over. It was hard won, through this kind of selfless compromise. With improved control came reduced threat, and damage to his reputation.
Regardless of whether he was wrong to go about bowling in the way he did or not, whatever he did deliver was immensely effective. Only five bowlers in our database (of those with 25 wickets) have drawn an edge or a miss with more regularity than Morkel.
Clearly the dominance of English and South African players in this list points to the clear advantage held by bowlers who play in helpful conditions more regularly, but as we’ve established, Morkel’s record in South Africa isn’t particularly stellar. His reputation as an unlucky bowler is supported by facts, and is seemingly deserved – he averaged wicket every 11 false shots, compared to 10 for Philander, 8 for Rabada and Steyn. Morkel’s chosen approach got results, despite poor luck and constant advice to change it, yet somehow this reputation as an unfulfilled talent pervades.
Perhaps this reputation comes from his role as the foil in the South African attack. Steyn, the leader of the attack for the last 14 years, has averaged 1.1° of swing in Tests, compared to Morkel’s 0.67°. If it’s Steyn’s job to get the ball moving through the air, it’s Morkel’s to get it jagging off the surface, a job he’s mastered; of bowlers to play 20 matches in our database, only three players get more seam movement than Morkel, and only three players get less swing.
Morkel’s partnership with Steyn is built on this dovetailing of skill-sets, of one picking up where the other left off. But by its very nature, the effect these two had on each other meant that Morkel has always been in close proximity to better bowling, to skills beyond his own.
So with all this taken into account, why is there so much fanfare for Morkel’s pre-announced farewell to Test cricket? From being criticised throughout his career for underachieving, the narrative has switched to exultant praise for a modern legend.
One reason for this finds a comparable case rather far from Morkel’s Vereeniging birthplace, in the North-West of England. Paul Scholes, the England and Manchester United midfielder, is often lauded as the great underused talent of a generation of English footballers. In discussions of why the England team underperformed for two decades, Scholes is praised to the rafters, and his mistreatment and non-selection is given as a key explanation for failure. Yet this broadly accepted deification of the Mancunian is at odds with the fact that he never received a single vote for World Player of the Year. Since retirement, his excellence has been exaggerated. Amongst other reasons, this is because for the final portion Scholes’ career, he was inarguably superb, a deep-lying midfielder bringing all his experience to bear on the game. The result of this late-career peak is that people assume Scholes must have been on that level for his whole career, fans extrapolating a purple patch into a golden career purely because it ended on a high. Being extremely good at the finale of your career distorts your legacy, and increases the fanfare around your retirement.
As mentioned earlier, Morne Morkel averaged less than 25 with the ball in only three calendar years throughout his career – of course what wasn’t mentioned is that two of these years are 2017 and 2018.
To an extent, something has finally clicked for Morkel in his final few Test series. As frustrating as it might be for some, this click isn’t the sound of him bowling fuller, as there’s no evidence that he’s pushing the ball further up now than he ever has done. It may be that, like Scholes, Morkel has just found the right balance of all his skills slightly later than others have, and is blooming late as a result. On top of this, he seems to be a demonstrably nice chap, and in this series of all series, that plays to the gallery in a significant way. The sight of Morne gently taking centre stage as he loped across the outfield at the close of the third Test, and his rueful joy at having carried his team to victory in the defining match of a defining series, was charming and sympathetic. But this goodwill can’t help hide that whilst he’s hit his straps in the last 18 months, he’s never sustained that level across his career.
Because at their heart, all of these reasons why Morne Morkel is not a great bowler, are the same reasons why he’ll be so fondly remembered. Morkel was a fun cricketer to watch. He existed at the physical extremes of the game. He constantly troubled batsmen with wonderful spells, yet never took enough wickets to curtail the spectacle. Would his infamous battle with Michael Clarke have been more impressive if he’d been caught at short leg first ball? Probably. Would it have been as memorable or legendary as Morkel repeatedly falling just short of dismissing the Australian captain? Absolutely not.
Most importantly, there was always the sense of anticipation when watching him play that maybe today would be the day he exploded onto the next level, and his bowling average came thundering down like one of those deliveries speared in from on high. It never came, but for a fun, flawed cricketer like Morkel, that was never really the point.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.