He could have been South Africa's next big thing, but finally settled for being an IPL sensation
Albie Morkel understands expectation better than most. He knows that while young cricketers can shine in its glow, they can also buckle in its light. For half of his career Morkel was forever going to be a "supercharged Shaun Pollock", or, "the new Lance Klusener", which meant that he receded into his own shadow.
He spent half a career waiting for permission to be himself.
This changed when he grew older and a little wiser, and changed too when he was able to stand and fall by his IPL achievements with Chennai Super Kings. Away from South Africa - and away from the treadmill of comparison - he could carve the ball into the stands and bowl his awayswingers with that strange involuntary curl of his non-bowling hand. Finally, wearing canary yellow, he could be himself, indulging his famously dry sense of humour and dipping into those reserves of decency that made him such a stand-out team man.
India made Morkel as a cricketer. He gained riches beyond his wildest dreams and the respect of the best players in the world. It was the second coming he thought he'd never have, not bad for a boy from Vereeniging, a site of heavy industry about 70km south of Johannesburg, who learned to play in epic jousts with his two brothers, Malan and Morne, and by watching his dad.
In his first year at primary school, six year-old Morkel played for the Under-11 team, batting last and bowling little. All the shared school kit was for right-handers in those days, so he made use of what he could, making sure that he scored enough runs over the next few years to convince his parents of the need for his own equipment. His first bat was a Gunn and Moore Club Deluxe, his second a Stuart Surridge Turbo. "Then I started to enjoy the way Kepler Wessels batted - believe it or not - and my folks bought me a Slazenger V500 and a red helmet - just like Kepler used to have," says Morkel.
In his first ODI, Morkel bowled a bit and batted a (tiny) bit alongside an array of team-mates with a similar job profile
© Touchline Photo
In his first ODI, Morkel bowled a bit and batted a (tiny) bit alongside an array of team-mates with a similar job profile © Touchline Photo
When Morkel and his brothers - Malan was lesser known, but a gifted fast bowler in his own right - got to an age where they could stand up for themselves and not be bullied, "the fun really started". Backyard cricket was played at the Morkel home in Vereeniging, with the neighbours' sons making for games with six or seven players. "Our backyard cricket moved to driveway cricket when we discovered the amazing fact that when you wet the paving and use a wet tennis ball, the ball would fly through to the keeper," says Morkel. "We had outside lights on that section of the yard, so day-night cricket flourished in the neighbourhood.
"That was a very bad thing for homework because that was often left for the next morning, just before we had to leave for school."
In addition to buying equipment for three sons and mending windows ("Dad was clever, he used to wait until about six were broken before replacing them"), Albert, the boys' father, was a handy cricketer himself. Albie remembers him turning out for the old Transvaal Country Districts team in the Nissan Shield, once making sure that he faced Omar Henry and not Allan Donald in fading light in a match against the then Orange Free State. "I can vividly remember him play," says Morkel. "But I also remember how we enjoyed playing our own 'Test' matches on the side of the field.
Morkel was always a clean striker of the ball, opening the batting for the Transvaal Under-19 side with Graeme Smith before graduating to playing for Transvaal B. There was a bottleneck in the Transvaal ranks at the time, so when Ray Jennings' finger beckoned, he jumped at the chance to play first-class cricket at neighbouring Easterns.
As luck would have it, it was a debut to remember, in October 1999, although not in the way one might think.
With brother Morne and yet another allrounder rival, Justin Kemp, in India during the Afro-Asia Cup in 2007
With brother Morne and yet another allrounder rival, Justin Kemp, in India during the Afro-Asia Cup in 2007 © AFP
"We played against a very strong Northern Transvaal side - they batted first, scored about 400, and we fielded forever," remembers Morkel. "They bowled us out cheaply, Greg Smith and Steve Elworthy bowling at speeds I'd never seen or faced before as an 18-year-old.
"And in the second innings Smith hit our Pakistani overseas pro, a guy called Shakeel Ahmed, right in the face. His nose was completely destroyed, almost sitting on the side of his face. We didn't have a team doctor or physio in those days. Ray Jennings was the coach, the fitness trainer, the doctor and the physio, all rolled into one." After assessing the mess Jennings said the pro needed to toughen up and go back out at the fall of the next wicket.
"We all thought he was joking, because it was quite obvious that the guy needed to be rushed to hospital. Needless to say, that didn't happen.
"I was batting at the time and at the fall of the next wicket Shakeel made his way back out to the middle, his nose plugged up with cotton wool and his eyes nearly closed shut from the swelling. Blood was dripping everywhere and he was in real bad shape. Eventually - or should I say thankfully - he was run out or stumped a few balls later, when he went on a stroll down the wicket."
The Easterns experience was good for Morkel because he arrived the careful conformist and left with an expanded sense of the possible. Jennings encouraged him to push the envelope by being more aggressive, widening his scoring options and going over the top. The advice served Morkel well because Easterns soon found themselves amalgamated with Northerns when 11 first-class provinces shrank to six, and he went from being a growing fish in a small pond to a merely talented fish in an infinitely larger one.
© ESPNcricinfo Ltd
© ESPNcricinfo Ltd
Northerns' riches, he soon discovered, were infinite. On any given afternoon he could find himself facing a laid-back skateboarder from Phalaborwa called Dale Steyn, who bowled at the speed of light; in the spinners' net was a crafty left-armer with a penchant for surfing, by the name of Paul Harris. Then there was this kid who seemed as comfortable playing tennis as he did cricket. He was blond and played guitar and there was stardust in his wake. People couldn't stop talking about him, although they seldom called him "Abraham", his given name, because it was easier to simply call him AB.
The hothouse atmosphere at Northerns post-amalgamation was good for Morkel, because before long he was playing ODI cricket for South Africa, trying to fill Klusener's not inconsiderable boots. He made his debut in the third ODI against New Zealand in Wellington in 2004, and the bare bones of the story tell us that he batted at four in an abbreviated game, bowling five overs and scoring 6. More alarming perhaps, was the fact that he jostled for space in the side with three other handy allrounders in Jacques Kallis, Nicky Boje and Shaun Pollock.
Back in Auckland in 2012 for what turned out to be the last of his 58 ODIs, he was similarly dogged by lack of clarity about roles and responsibilities. Batting at three this time round, he scored 41, although he again struggled for elbow room in a side top-heavy with bits-and-pieces men like Wayne Parnell (who opened the batting that day), Robin Peterson and Johan Botha.
Although eight years apart, the two ODIs were eerily similar. Morkel was given an opportunity up the order in both matches but somehow found himself camouflaged by his own side: he was like too many of his team-mates. Such confusion led to frustration from selectors and fans, who pointed out that he was seemingly unable to make the best of his opportunities. He seldom failed outright but neither did he succeed in a way that brooked no argument, his form in a green shirt in sharp distinction to what he was capable of in the canary yellow of CSK.
"I wish I could roll back the years and play a few international games with the mindset I have now," he says. "I played in an era with quite a few good allrounders in the set-up: Kallis, Polly, Zulu, [Andrew Hall] Hally and [Justin] Kemp, to name but a few.
"I always wanted to impress and prove people wrong, as I knew opportunities were limited. It's a big mistake worrying about things you can't control, and it certainly held me back. I had a good run for the first time under Mickey [Arthur] and I played my best cricket for South Africa under him."
Another fish in South Africa's crowded allrounder pool
Lee Warren / © Getty Images
Another fish in South Africa's crowded allrounder pool Lee Warren / © Getty Images
Running parallel to his stop-start ODI career was the blossoming of T20 cricket. Morkel had a good World T20 in South Africa in September 2007, and although South Africa were unable to sneak into the semi-finals, he impressed enough to be snapped up in the first IPL auction by CSK, temporary home to the man whose red helmet he'd admired as a laaitie.
"Our domestic season finished late that year and I missed the first two games of the tournament. I remember watching them on television, and I just couldn't believe I was about to play in the first IPL," Morkel remembers.
"I met up with the team as they were travelling to their third game, and they were sitting in a lounge at some airport on the way to Bangalore. I walked into a small waiting room and I can honestly say that I've never felt so intimidated, shy and insecure in my entire life. They probably looked up and thought to themselves: 'Who is this guy?'" Morkel was looking at Stephen Fleming, Matthew Hayden, Murali, Jacob Oram, Mike Hussey, and Wessels, who were all there. "I played the night of my arrival and through a few good performances quickly felt part of the team. As a young cricketer it was such a privilege, rubbing shoulders with those guys."
Super Kings had no support staff other than physiotherapist Greg King, and Wessels, who was basically in charge after four seasons on the trot at Northamptonshire. "Having been at Northants, I knew what to do and what to take control of," says Wessels, adding that he was clear from the beginning about where Morkel should bat. "At the Super Kings there was absolute clarity as far as his role was concerned - he batted at five and it was important that he was given enough time to get in. We had another superb finisher in MS Dhoni batting at six, so we always knew we had that base adequately covered."
Although there was no secret to CSK's phenomenal run - they reached four finals in four years from 2010 to 2014 - Morkel believes that they were savvy in ways other IPL franchises weren't. "Dhoni was an inspirational leader, but the biggest reason we did well was our approach to the auction," he said. "CSK invested heavily in our Indian players and made sure we had the best." They then built the team around them, filling up with internationals to balance and complement the squad.
"Other teams went the other way, spending big money on one or two overseas players and then filling the team with lesser-known Indian guys. That didn't work out so well because you just can't rely on the big-name players to win you a competition like the IPL. It's just too long and intense, and eventually it will take its toll if the expectation is rested on just a few players in the squad."
The fellow in yellow: most people's memories of Morkel are of him in a Chennai Super Kings shirt
Hamish Blair / © IPL/Getty Images
The fellow in yellow: most people's memories of Morkel are of him in a Chennai Super Kings shirt Hamish Blair / © IPL/Getty Images
There were other reasons for CSK's phenomenal success. After their inaugural IPL win in 2010, when they beat Mumbai Indians by 22 runs in the final, their owner doubled the team's prize money as a thank-you gesture. Morkel adds that as the tournament progressed through the years, so the Chidambaram Stadium became a fortress, which also added to CSK's lustre.
Another reason for the continuing spit and polish was Dhoni, imperturbable at the crease and warm off it. Morkel recounts how he and some team-mates were once invited to dinner in the high-walled Dhoni compound in Ranchi. They arrived to find hundreds of people swarming about outside, and assumed they'd wandered across a street party. When their car was finally allowed into the property with some help from the police, they realised that such a throng was not only usual but was now growing because Dhoni was clearly at home. With a shake of the head and a rueful smile, Morkel utters one word: "Crazy." In a way, the word serves as a synecdoche for his IPL experience as a whole.
The flip side of Morkel's fruitful years at four IPL franchises (the other three are Rising Pune Supergiant, Royal Challengers Bangalore and Delhi Daredevils) is the fact that honours in the World T20 have continued to elude South Africa. He candidly admits that he'll be "haunted forever" by South Africa's performances since he competed in the inaugural tournament on home soil in 2007.
"In that one we beat England, New Zealand, West Indies and Bangladesh, and got knocked out - admittedly quite an embarrassing loss, in Durban - after losing to India.
"The tournament in England [in 2009] we played some unbelievable cricket. We beat the Windies, New Zealand, England and India, before losing to Pakistan in a low-scoring game in the semis.
With Mickey Arthur: "I played my best cricket for South Africa under him"
© Getty Images
With Mickey Arthur: "I played my best cricket for South Africa under him" © Getty Images
"The next World Cup, in the Caribbean, I don't believe we had our best side there at the time, so not good enough there. In Sri Lanka  the team environment was a mess, so you're not going to win like that. Then in Bangladesh we took a very good side, and played some great cricket in losing to India in the semis after setting 170-plus. The toss played a massive role there. There was heavy dew at night, which meant the fielding side had little chance if they were fielding second, and Virat Kolhi was on fire - which really didn't help. Our time will come!"
This alphabet of T20 failure tends to obscure what a ruthlessly destructive player Morkel could be - and how much was resting on his shoulders when he burst onto the scene. Shortly after amalgamation, he played an innings for Titans that some describe as the very best they have witnessed. The ground was Willowmoore Park in November 2007 and Titans trailed their visitors, Knights, by 235 on the first innings. They were in bother in their second dig but Morkel, batting at eight, with the risk that he might run out of partners, decided to take matters into his own large hands. "He came out and counterattacked and it was something to behold," says Richard Pybus, his coach at the time. "It was like the last ten overs of a one-day game, and as an attacking innings which whipped the game away from the opposition, it was one of the best innings I ever saw."
Morkel's save-the-day 151 came in 159 balls and contained 17 fours and six sixes, but also held within it an important clue as to the player he was. The innings took place in the country's most unfashionable ground, before an audience of ground staff, sundry reporters and a mildly impressed Jack Russell terrier that spent most of its time chasing a tennis ball on the grass embankment.
When it came for Morkel to project himself on a larger stage, he was often swamped by a radioactive compound of unrealistic expectation and his natural introversion. Some players - Ricky Ponting, Virat Kohli, the Smiths, Graeme and Robin - somehow manage to project a persona that suggests they are bigger than they are. Others visibly shrink, or stay the same size. Morkel, for all his power-hitting and the lazy ease with which he cleared the ropes, had an unfortunate knack of getting lost in the game he loved. Some cricketers thrive in the gales of expectation; for years Morkel seemed to twist in its lonely gusts.
As befits a man of 36, the cricketing side of Morkel's life is winding down. He's no longer playing any first-class cricket for Titans, the franchise to which he has remained loyal since Easterns' amalgamation all those years ago, although he is captaining the side in both abbreviated forms. Life now consists of juggling work (at Safari and Outdoor, South Africa's largest hunting and leisure store) with the demands of a young family, expanding his repertoire of Thai cooking, and looking forward to the possibility of coaching.
First, though, for someone who enjoys his furloughs in the bush, he feels that it's appropriate to spend a period in the wilderness.
Luke Alfred is a journalist based in Johannesburg
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.