Fire still burns in old Protea warhorses

Good to have you back: Proteas captain Faf du Plessis congratulates Albie Morkel during the second T20 against India this week. (Dibyangshu Sarkur/AFP)

Good to have you back: Proteas captain Faf du Plessis congratulates Albie Morkel during the second T20 against India this week. (Dibyangshu Sarkur/AFP)

Albie Morkel has never retired from international cricket – it’s just that he’s been written off so many times it feels like it. It was sweet vindication of his belief in himself and his continuing desire to play for his country when he won the man of the match award to clinch the T20 series against India in Cuttack on Tuesday.

On one occasion it was these pages that condemned him to premature retirement. A T20 World Cup had ended in ignominious failure for the team and Morkel had gone down with the ship without raising an eyebrow, never mind a match-winning performance, with bat or ball.

The Titans all-rounder had entered his 30s and his body was rebelling against the workload.
Ankle surgery threatened to end his career altogether and he had already made a few late starts to the domestic season because he needed to “recharge his batteries”.

It all looked ominous – he wouldn’t have been the first cricketer to fall out of love with the game, if that was happening.

“Just for your information, I haven’t retired from any form of cricket,” he wrote in an SMS to me. “Still want to play for the Proteas … fire still burns.”

It came as a surprise, to say the least, but a delightful one. Anyone who’s seen Morkel at his best, domestically or in his half-dozen years as an Indian Premier League player with Chennai, Bangalore and now Delhi, would have wanted him doing it at the highest level.

His reputation appeared to have been established when he almost single-handedly won a few one-day internationals against Australia in 2005 in front of their most rabid crowds at the Sydney and Melbourne cricket grounds. His destructive hitting made light work of 10-an-over run chases in the final overs, even setting a record for the highest chase under lights in Sydney.

A decade later, however, he’s still regarded as an unfulfilled talent by Proteas supporters, if not by Super Kings, Royal Challengers and Titans followers. He knows it and it hurts, which explains the resilience of his determination. It was with the ball that he showed his experience earlier this week, snuffing out hopes of Indian revival with figures of 3-12 as the hosts plummeted to 92 all out.

AB de Villiers and JP Duminy might have been accused of teasing the home side during the run chase, such was their caution. Perhaps that’s why the crowd demonstrated their discontent by twice bringing the game to a halt with a hail of plastic water bottles. Normally Indian cricket crowds are herded like prisoners on work shift and denied luxuries such as water, but it was hot enough for the ban to be lifted this time.

They didn’t say as much afterwards, but the Proteas enjoyed the mini riot. Such displays (burning effigies of players and stone-throwing is popular, too) always have an adverse effect on the home side although they, too, will only admit it privately.

Wealthy sportsmen who work hard at their trade and give of their best tend to lack enthusiasm when the countrymen they are trying to entertain throw things at them and boo. In the past, national selectors have been panicked into making knee-jerk changes to the team, creating insecurity and a rash of defeats. History tells us that when India gets on to a losing roll, they do it properly.

India is the “home” of T20 cricket and the Indian Premier League is in its make-up. It’s why the Board of Control for Cricket in India scheduled the games first on this marathon, 72-day tour, hoping if not actually assuming that its team would win and build confidence moving to the five-match one-day international series, a format in which India is also ranked higher than South Africa.

After a month in the country and two series losses, the Proteas, the theory went, would be at their most vulnerable for the four Tests, the format in which they remain ranked number one and unbeaten in their last 14 away series spanning nine years.

It is no coincidence Duminy was the other man to play the match-winning role in the first game in Dharamsala with a brutal innings of 72 from 36 balls with seven sixes. Unlike Morkel, the left-hander’s been a regular in all three Proteas teams for several years; like Morkel, he feels he has not lived up to his potential.

Make no mistake, he’s been good – but should be very good. He knows he could be as consistent as De Villiers and Hashim Amla and will stop at nothing to make it happen. Sports psychologists, physical conditioners and personal managers have been hired at his expense to give him the best chance of becoming the best cricketer he can be.

Amla and De Villiers are in their 30s now, too, as are Dale Steyn, Morné Morkel and Faf du Plessis. Vernon Philander is almost there. The key players are all at or nearing their prime. Perhaps the pretournament apprehension was unfounded. If they can stay mentally fresh and physically fit over the next two months, and the first two games are a portent, it may well be a tour to remember. For the right reasons.

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