Underdog Proteas could surprise Aussies: Morkel

Despite the loss of a phalanx of star players since their most recent Test tour of Australia, former South Africa fast bowler Morne Morkel believes the radically revamped Proteas have earned their current status as top-ranked team in the ICC’s World Test Championship.

And Morkel expects the unfancied outfit to continue South Africa’s remarkable record of performances in Australia when they return for a long-awaited Test campaign in December.

Since South Africa were re-admitted to international cricket 30 years ago, no other touring outfit has bettered their Test winning ratio of six wins from 21 Tests played here (28.6 per cent) with next-best being India’s six victories from 27 matches (22.2 per cent).

They have triumphed in their past three Test tours to Australia, with the West Indies – at the height of their global dominance from the late 1970s to the early 90s – the only Test nation to have completed four consecutive series wins on Australia’s turf.

Faf du Plessis and his side celebrate a 2-1 victory in South Africa’s last Test tour of Australia // Getty

The Proteas’ two previous visits in 2012-13 and 2016-17 did not include outings at the MCG or SCG as Cricket South Africa looked to build their own landmark home fixtures across the Christmas-New Year period.

But as they prepare to return to those famous grounds in the coming season’s Test series, without the services of recently retired greats the likes of AB de Villiers, Faf du Plessis, Hashim Amla, Dale Steyn and Quinton de Kock, Morkel is tipping heroics of old from the new-look line-up.

Despite being rocked by the loss of so many senior players over the past four years and wracked by several internal upheavals of late, South Africa replaced Australia atop the Test Championship rankings after the second Test in Galle, with Sri Lanka moving into third place.

And Morkel attributes his former team’s unheralded success ahead of their looming series in England before the Australia visit to the hard-nosed influence of coach Mark Boucher and skipper Dean Elgar as well as the mercurial talents of players such as fast bowler Kagiso Rabada and batter Temba Bavuma.

Rabada celebrates the wicket of New Zealand’s Will Young at Hagley Oval earlier this year // Getty

Morkel acknowledged Elgar’s outfit would arrive in Australia later this year as underdogs given the only member of their touring party to have played a first-class fixture at the venues for the upcoming three-match series – Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane – is coach Boucher.

However, the towering quick – who captured 309 wickets in 86 Tests from 2006-2018 – says the promise shown by emerging players coupled with the competitiveness instilled by Boucher and Elgar will ensure the Proteas are unfazed by unfamiliar surrounds or a more highly fancied opponent.

“I think they’ve surprised us all,” Morkel told cricket.com.au.

“In any team, if you take five or six players out – and the big thing was with AB (de Villiers), Faf (du Plessis) and Hashim (Amla), those guys averaged 40-plus in Test cricket – and you then look at the team and think ‘well who’s going to score the runs?’

“So credit to Bouch (Boucher) and everyone that got these guys Test match ready to go out and perform.

“It’s a team under the leadership of Dean Elgar – Dean is a tough cricketer, so he’ll know how to get the best out of these guys in combination with Bouch, who also in his career has been a tough guy.

“They’ll be a team that arrives here ready to keep up the run (of success) that we’ve had in Australia.

“I think the cricket we’ve played here in our last couple of outings was amazing.

“They (South Africa) have found some sort of formula to come out here and perform well, and that’s going to continue under Bouch.

“These conditions, and playing Australia in their own backyard, for some reason it motivates these guys to go that extra yard.”

Elgar with upcoming Test player Keegan Petersen against Bangladesh in April // Getty

Morkel identified South Africa’s bowling attack as a key factor in their bid to win a fourth consecutive Test series on Australia soil, with Rabada the strike weapon who looms large having claimed 38 wickets (at 20.5) from his seven Tests against Australia to date.

But he also singled out the leadership provided by not only Elgar and Bavuma (current ODI skipper) but also former under-19 World Cup-winning captain Aiden Markram who holds down the No.3 batting berth in the Test line-up.

In addition, South Africa have regained the services of a number of players who lost their Kolpak status and capacity to play in the UK following the completion of Brexit, among them fast bowler Duanne Olivier and spinner Simon Harmer who have recently returned to Test ranks.

Elgar’s men showed their mettle in securing a 2-1 victory over India in South Africa last summer despite losing the opening match of that series by 113 runs.

The Proteas’ next Test assignment will be a three-match series against in-form England in the UK in August and September, and while playing in front of parochial crowds at Lord’s, Old Trafford and The Oval might provide a hint of what to expect in Australia, Morkel claims nothing can replicate Boxing Day in Melbourne.

“Obviously it’s a life-changing experience playing at a packed MCG,” he said, recalling his 2009 experience when he was part of South Africa’s memorable nine-wicket win.

“I can remember walking out to that coliseum sort of feel, and it’s tough cricket.

“So it’s going to be a great test for them and the way they’ve been playing, particularly against India, I hope there will be a massive build-up to the (Boxing Day) Test match.

Morne Morkel celebrates the wicket of Simon Katich in 2009 // Getty

“As a cricketer growing up, and dreaming to play in Australia, you want to play in front of 90,000 people and I just feel this crop of players are a team that don’t over-think the game.

“That’s a nice stage to be in, sort of a young-ish team – you just want to go out there and perform and do well.

“If they can put in a good performance in England, that would make the Aussie series even more exciting and blow that up because you want that hype, you want that build-up.

“You want those battles between bowling attacks and individual batters – that creates the excitement.

“They (South Africa) are a dangerous team and one that, if you’re up against them, you know you’re in for a real game.”

Morkel also expects the Proteas to figure prominently in the ICC men’s T20 World Cup to be held in Australia in October and November this year.

South Africa narrowly missed the semi-finals of last year’s global T20 tournament in the UAE, finishing third in group one with the same points but a marginally inferior net run rate to eventual winners Australia and England.

But with power hitters de Kock and David Miller finishing in the top six runs-scorers at this year’s Indian Premier League and Rabada completing that tournament as third-highest wicket-taker, Morkel sees a similarity in the evolution of the Proteas’ red and white-ball cricket.

“I think they’re a team that’s moving under the radar,” he said recently. 

“Nobody’s really been talking about them, but I’ll be surprised with the (T20) World Cup here if we don’t see them in the top four.

“Miller’s re-finding his form and it’s almost like the IPL has re-energised his game a bit, and there’s a lot of exciting young cricketers.

“We were all sort of (asking) ‘where’s South Africa going to go in our red-ball cricket and our white-ball cricket?’, but they’ve done exceptionally well.

“Every game there’s somebody putting their hand up and performing.”

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