Today was the highlight of my life – Proteas fast bowler Morne Morkel

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CAPE TOWN, March 26 (ANA) – Morne Morkel has been in the South Africa Test team for the best part of the last 12 years, playing 85 matches along the way, but has never really been the front man of the attack.

Dale Steyn was always the big man, with Vernon Philander as the able No.2. In the early years, there were Shaun Pollock and Makhaya Ntini, and more recently, Kagiso Rabada. They have been the men making the big headlines even as Morkel toiled away, bowling long spells and chipping away, building the pressure.

As Morkel returned a player of the match award-winning performance in the Cape Town Test against Australia with returns of 4/87 and 5/23 in a 322-run win on Sunday, Faf du Plessis, his captain, spelt out the paceman’s contribution perfectly.

“Morne has almost been, for the first six-seven-eight years of his career, the guy that has gone unnoticed,” noted du Plessis. “He was the work horse. He got his two or three-fors and I think only captains really appreciate the work Morne does.

“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.”

For Morkel, who will retire at the end of the series, the high of leading South Africa to victory in his penultimate Test appearance is an unmatched one.

Australia, reeling under the impact of the ball-tampering controversy, were chasing 430 for victory and looking good at 57/0 with David Warner and Cameron Bancroft in the middle. The tide turned after du Plessis ran Bancroft out, and Australia lost all their wickets within 50 runs.

“I am just very happy sitting here right now. Everything happened so quickly out there. At one stage I thought ‘OK, it’s going to be a grind, tomorrow as well’. Keshav (Maharaj) got the ball rolling with the run out (off his bowling) and got us going, and from there, it was just a buzz in the field, an edge in the field. I’m just happy that we could wrap it up,” said Morkel after the day’s play.

Interestingly, it was the first time Morkel had picked up nine wickets in a Test match, finishing with 9/110 and topping the 8/196 he got in Adelaide in November 2012. Morkel, having started bowling as first change, picked up his first wicket in the 30th over of the Australian innings – his fifth – when he had Steve Smith’s number, and ran through the rest of the order in just 32 balls. He was on a hat-trick at one stage too, after sending back Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins off successive deliveries.

“Today was very, very special. I tried to enjoy it as much as possible. The crowd is always amazing here at Newlands. For me personally, it is the best venue to play Test cricket,” said Morkel. “Today is the highlight of my life. I think, if I get asked the question again, what is your most memorable or special day, the answer will definitely be today.”

That won’t, however, change what Morkel has called a ‘family decision’, to hang up his boots.

“It is tough. Especially leaving a quality group of men in the change room,” he said with a chuckle. “It is going to be sad but I suppose all good things must come to an end.”

The target, as he has stressed from before the series started, remains to beat Australia at home for the first time since 1970. “For me, just keep on focussing now on finishing on a high. Like I said the other day, as a team we’ve got one goal in mind, to win this series. We’ve got one more hurdle to jump over and that’s the main focus,” said Morkel, who became the fifth South African to pick up 300 Test wickets earlier in the game.

The fourth and final Test, Morkel’s last, will start in Johannesburg on Friday.