Morne Morkel has waited 12 years for a day like this, a day when he could stand out and revel in the highest high of his career.
“Today was very, very special. I tried to enjoy it as much as possible. The crowd is always amazing here at Newlands. For me, it is the best venue to play Test cricket. Today is the highlight of my life. If I get asked the question again, what is your most memorable or special moment, the answer will definitely be today,” a beaming, emotional Morkel said afterwards.
His first nine-for has come in bittersweet circumstances, not only because it could be his last with his retirement now only a week away. It also came on a day when what was happening off the field cast a Table Mountain-sized shadow over what was happening on it, when the opposition were so suitably distracted that they might as well have forfeited their second innings after the first wicket fell and the crowd was more concerned with booing the Australians than celebrating the South Africans.
That started to change when the Newlands faithful realised a result could come on Sunday and they could be witness to it, when Steven Smith, public enemy No.1 after the ball-tampering transgression, threw his hands at the third ball of Morkel’s second spell and steered a catch to Dean Elgar at gully. The jeers – and there were jeers aplenty for the deposed Australian captain – turned to cheers. Morkel pulled on Australia’s loosest thread and then it all unraveled.
In 32 balls, Morkel took 5 for 14 and put South Africa in a position from which they cannot lose the series. At one stage he was on a hat-trick, after two fierce, fast deliveries to dismiss Mitchell Marsh and Pat Cummins and he was the one to end the innings. As he did, Morkel provided one of his most animated celebrations with enthusiastic waving to a crowd he will not see again. He even shed a tear and then quickly pulled himself so he could soak up the moment.
“I am just very happy sitting here right now. Everything happened so quickly out there,” he said. “At one stage I thought it was going to be a grind. Keshav got the ball rolling and from there, there was just a buzz in the field, an edge in the field. I’m just happy we could wrap it up.”
Morkel has never been one to take the credit, most of the time because it hasn’t been his to take. He spent a career in the shadows of Dale Steyn early on, Vernon Philander through the middle and Kagiso Rabada at the end. He has spent his career being under-rated and maybe even a little insecure because if a conversation had to be had about who needed to be dropped, it often involved him.
Now, as it all comes to an end, Morkel is finally getting some recognition and it has come in the finest fashion, from a captain who has known him throughout his career.
“Morne has almost been, for the first six, seven or eight years of his career, the guy that has gone unnoticed. He was the work horse. He got his two or three-fors and I think only captains really appreciate the work Morne does,” Faf du Plessis said. “He is not the guy that gets five-fors. Dale Steyn, Kagiso Rabada of late, they get the five-fors on regular occasions. Morne does the donkey work. He works hard. He runs in all day. He never says, ‘I have bowled enough.’ You tell him it is enough and then still he wants to bowl more and more. That’s a captain’s dream. As a performer, he is going to be missed.”
More so, now that he has found such fine form and that there is a crop of youngsters to nurture. “He has been a mother figure in the team, with a big heart. We are going to miss that,” du Plessis said. “Obviously, his bowling we are going to miss. It is size 13 boots that need to be filled. It’s big shoes. We understand his decision. It’s a decision for his future and his family. He knows that the team backs him up 100%. It’s great to see the fans are so behind him. And I reckon he is going to miss days like these a lot.”
Is he? Yes, but it will not cause him to reconsider.
“It is tough. Especially leaving a quality group of men in the change room. It is going to be sad but I suppose all good things come to an end,” Morkel said.
Even one as good as this.