By Shubham Nag
No matter what result comes out of the ongoing second Test between South Africa and Australia, the hosts have shown in the last two days why they are deservedly the No 1 Test team in the world. And even more importantly, we now know that Mitchell Johnson has company in the form of Morne Morkel.
As the legends of fast bowling would make you believe, to bowl fast is good, but to intimidate and raise fear in the minds of the batsmen is the real deal. Morkel, late on Day Two and Day Three of the second Test, bowled fiercely fast and used his steep bounce to great venomous effect. To come from someone as gentle [in character] as him, the barrage of 147 kmph bouncers to the ribcages must have caused a lot of discomfort to Nathan Lyon. The nightwatchman actually did quite well to survive 43 balls in the middle when all that Morkel was aiming for were not his stumps, but precisely the lower two bones in his ribcage.
And Lyon wasn’t the only Australian to get a taste of the medicine their beloved Johnson has been serving to opponents since the last three months. On a flat low surface where all the other bowlers, including Johnson, failed to extract any spite, on a surface where edges where falling way short of the slips since Day One, Morkel’s deliveries were climbing the proverbial ladder. His figures at the end of the Australian first innings wouldn’t paint the complete picture — three for 63. But the effect Morkel had on his opposition as well as his teammates could very well turn this series a 180o degrees.
Garth le Roux, the unknown great fast bowler, who could not play for South Africa due to their ban, has always believed that intimidation is the most important ingredient in fast bowling. In an interview once, le Roux told the journalist about an exchange he had with his Western Province team-mate Peter Kirsten during a club match.
“We knew each other well and he’d watched me bowl and hit people from day one. He wasn’t a terribly good hooker, and he walks in with a cloth cap in the days of helmets. So I bowl him a baby bouncer and he hits me for a one-bounce four. The next one gets a bit more heated and I hit him straight on the pip. He goes down and has to spend two weeks in a dark room. Almost kills him. And I felt nothing for him because he should have known better,” said le Roux.
Le Roux, then, would have surely enjoyed watching South Africa bowl at Australia in their first innings. Late in 2011, he had said during another interview how he dismayed Morkel’s lack of aggression. “There’s got to be fear; all the greatest fast bowlers have been mean,” he said. “That’s why I’m worried about Morne Morkel. He’s got all this ability, but I want to see him hit people properly, and then tell them to get up or f*** off. Those batsmen will spread that story so quickly it will make your head spin.”
Morkel wasn’t quite moved to expletives over the course of his 17 overs on Friday and Saturday, during which he yielded three for 63. But, at least, he showed no mercy to a group of batsmen who struggled against his awkward bounce in conditions that didn’t generally offer much assistance to the bowlers.
Morkel, it must be understood, is a gentle soul who looks worthy of a hug most of the time. In other words, he’s not the type of character you would pick as the enforcer/aggressor in your side. Sledging doesn’t come naturally to him, much less mid-pitch expletives, but when he’s at his best the ball does the talking for him — as Australia found to their discomfort.
“I really enjoy bowling around the wicket because I feel I can hold my shape a lot better,” said Morkel at the end of Day Three. “It gave me more of an option, and it’s an awkward angle to face. We had our fair share of it in Centurion and on this sort of wicket we need to try those sorts of things.”
David Warner was pinned on the ribs, and Johnson was hit on the crest on his helmet as Australia found that, all of a sudden, the boot was on the other foot. For the South Africans, the sight of Johnson taking what he had dished out in abundance at Centurion was therapeutic, and it felt like the moment that momentum in the series had swung the other way.
The other South African bowlers fed off the energy that Morkel’s zip created and after the innings break, South Africa batted like Australian sides of old, racing to 100 by the 23rd over. By the end of the day, it was Australia spurning chances as Brad Haddin put down Hashim Amla on 83. A South African team that had looked timid in the first Test was enjoying newfound confidence. Amla was batting like Mozart on a high.
Michael Clarke continued his mind games when he claimed that, were he in Graeme Smith’s position, he would have bowled on the third evening. It was arguably a sign that the Australians have been rattled by South Africa’s response to their Centurion defeat.
Smith has always been more pragmatic than his Australasian counterparts, but a statement of intent early on Day Four by the South African batsmen backed up the bold cricket that Morkel freed them to play in this match.
Michael Holding, in the commentary box at St George’s Park liked what he saw. He said when Morkel hit Johnson on the head, “This is the sort of fast bowling I like to see.”