Moonda: Playing Morkel a gamble
It is dangerous to judge a Test pitch two days before the match starts, but the Dunedin surface had certainly caught the attention of the South Africans on Monday. The pitch looked “juicy” in the words of Dean Elgar, so much so that the self-confessed pie-chucker joked it “looks like I might have to bowl off a long run-up as well”, and the sky was heavy with moisture.
But the visitors will be wary of allowing those visual cues to have too much of an influence on their selection because, as hometown man Neil Wagner warned, looks are deceiving in Dunedin.
“It’s one of those wickets where it doesn’t always assist the fast bowlers. You’ve just got to show a bit of patience and sort of know the area to bowl,” he said. “When you put it there consistently for long periods of time, sometimes it’s just longer than other grounds, there’s always a bit of reward for you.”
The ideal length is fuller than Wagner and most of the South Africa attack’s default of short, but it is the length that comes most naturally to Vernon Philander which is why he will lead the bowling effort. “I’m glad he’s on my side and I don’t have to face him with the new ball. That’s a blessing. He’s going to be a massive asset,” Elgar said. “His length will suit New Zealand conditions especially with the overhead and a bit of rain around.”
The forecast for the first three days of the Test is fine, but with rain moving in over the weekend. Again, Wagner had some advice, this time about being about over-reliant on movement. “Sometimes it looks like it should swing – if it’s cold it doesn’t – and other times when you think it wouldn’t swing it does swing. That’s the beauty of this ground.”
So South Africa will also want something else from their bowlers, something different, maybe some extra effort to generate some bounce and in that department two candidates stand out: Morne Morkel and Duanne Olivier. They are both tall, aggressive and capable of finding reverse swing which could confine Chris Morris and Wayne Parnell to the bench for now. There is probably a temptation to play both Morkel and Olivier but with South Africa unlikely to go into the game without their sole specialist spinner Keshav Maharaj, it is more likely the pair are competing for one spot.
Duanne Olivier may move down the pecking order with Morne Morkel fit again © Gallo Images
Olivier comfortably topped the first-class wicket charts this season and made an impressive debut against Sri Lanka at the Wanderers. That should give him a good chance of retaining his place, especially as Morkel has not played a Test in more than a year and has only played two List A games back in South Africa after recovering from his back injury, but the early indications are that Morkel’s experience will win out over Olivier’s potential.
“I think Morne’s very hungry. The last five months he’s had a lot of time to think about his game and do a lot of rehab and try and get his injury correct. He’s raring to go and he wants to play for South Africa again,” Elgar said. “He’s another bowler I don’t have to face too much. I just have to face him in the nets. It’s only seven minutes of your day, luckily.”
Elgar also does not look forward to fronting up to Morkel for another reason as well, which has nothing to do with the 70 Test caps Morkel has over Olivier. “He has that knack against left-handers with his skill,” Elgar said.
The three batsmen Morkel has dismissed most in Test cricket – Alastair Cook, Andrew Strauss and Michael Hussey – are all left-handed. New Zealand have six left-handers in their squad, including their two openers, Tom Latham and Jeet Raval, and their No.5 Henry Nicholls. If South Africa are searching for a psychological advantage that could be it and Olivier may have to wait his turn, although South Africa are not revealing their hand just yet.
Olivier, not Morkel, was tasked with media duties on Monday, which is usually the domain of those in the starting XI, but he seemed to accept that he knows he is in a queue. “If I play it will be a great opportunity. If I don’t of course I understand,” he said.
But he also gave the selectors one more hint that he should be their preferred choice at a venue that demands discipline from bowlers, similar to that of the Bloemfontein pitch where Olivier has spent most of his career. “Back home there are certain grounds where you need to bowl fuller as well and I’m confident doing that,” he said. “I’ve spoken to Marchant de Lange at my franchise, who has also been here on a tour and he told me to try and bowl a fuller length because if you don’t is sits up and it’s easy to score.”
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo’s South Africa correspondent
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Source: ESPN Crickinfo