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Morne Morkel, South Africa

‘A special player' – tributes pour in for Morne Morkel

SA v Aus, 4th Test, reaction

The mission was to beat the Aussies and it's great to do that, said Morkel after Vernon Philander finished the Australians off on the fifth morning in Johannesburg.

Emotions ran high after South Africa eased to a 492-run win over Australia in the fourth and final Test in Johannesburg.

It sealed a historic 3-1 series win, South Africa’s first at home against the Australians since 1970. As joyous as it was for the home side, there was a tinge of sadness. It was Morne Morkel’s final outing as an international cricketer, and his team-mates struggled to come to terms with the fact that one of cricket’s nicest guys wouldn’t share the dressing room with them anymore.

“It's very sad,” said Hashim Amla. “Everybody wanted something special to happen, and the team wanted something special for Morne. What he brings to the dressing room ... I'm going to miss this guy. Really.”

Vernon Philander was the star of the day. Australia started the morning at 88/3, hoping to bat out the day and deny South Africa victory. Philander had other ideas, his career-best 6/21 bundling out the opposition in a session, and he brought up his 200th Test wicket along the way. It was a performance that earned him the Player of the Match award, but he was thinking about Morkel.

Vernon Philander returned a career-best 6/21 to dismantle Australia
Vernon Philander returned a career-best 6/21 to dismantle Australia

“We're going to miss Morne,” he said. “His jokes in the change room, his demeanour on and off the field, the way he goes about his business … we're going to miss him. He only deserves the best.”

Faf du Plessis, the South Africa captain, felt whoever replaces Morkel in the squad will have a lot to do to fill the gap. “Morne's been a special player,” he said. “(The plaudits) are richly deserved, he's one of the nicest guys in cricket. When the times are tough, Morne is a nice guy to have around. He is the funny guy in the dressing room, and he'll be missed a lot on the field. Whoever comes in next will have big boots to fill.”

Kagiso Rabada, the Player of the Series for his 23 wickets, is a man of few words at the best of times, but had a lot to say about Morkel: “Outstanding career Morne's had. It’s a fitting finale for him. We're going to celebrate his career, today is all about him.”

Kagiso Rabada was declared Player of the Series for his 23 wickets
Kagiso Rabada was declared Player of the Series for his 23 wickets

Morkel himself was typically shy. His team-mates gave him a guard of honour ahead of play, and Morkel led the team off after the final wicket. Each team-mate embraced him warmly after Nathan Lyon was run out for the last wicket, and when the stage was opened for him to say his thank yous, he kept it brief.

“I would just like to say thank you so much. The last month, the last couple of weeks, have been exceptional,” he said. “I've to say thanks to my family, it's been 12 years of a lot of support and tears and those sorts of things. To my team-mates as well, I could be the man I am today by playing the best of cultures, and it's a fantastic environment. They have made it very, very special.”

Morkel’s final Test was nearly ruined by a side strain suffered on the third day, which meant the chances of him bowling were low. However, he wasn’t going to let that affect his last outing. “I sat down with the doc after I came off the field and I said do whatever you can to get me on the field,” he revealed. “I'm happy Verny (Philander) could come out and do his thing this morning, there were a couple of sore bodies in the change room. The way he came out and landed the ball was sensational.”

He admitted there were a lot of things he would miss. “It's tough to put in words this feeling, it's very emotional, it's been a great journey,’” he said. “I'm grateful for all opportunities I've been given. The mission was to beat the Aussies here, and it's great to do that. It's funny how things work out. The main thing is to keep working hard, always make most of opportunities. I'll miss this environment, I will miss this lot. I will miss playing in front of this crowd. But I am excited for the new guy who will step in. It's been an unbelievable journey.”

All in all, it made for a fitting end to a great series. South Africa had been handed a sound beating in the opening Test in Durban, but du Plessis made it point to praise his team for the manner of their fightback. “This series has been remarkable,” he said. “To get 80 wickets means your bowling unit is tough. You don't always get an opportunity to beat Australia 3-1. It's been a long summer, as Kagiso said, and it's been a successful summer for the Test team. It's a proud captain standing here.

Morne Morkel bowled despite a side strain and returned 2/28 in the second innings
Morne Morkel bowled despite a side strain and returned 2/28 in the second innings

“I've never seen our team so motivated after that first loss. The guys were hungry, especially the senior players, there was a hunger to make big performance, and get something out of the series.”

As for Australia, their campaign was side-tracked by the ball-tampering incident in the third Test that resulted in Steve Smith, David Warner and Cameron Bancroft being sent back home ahead of the final Test.

Tim Paine, the new captain, conceded it was hard to bounce back from that. “It has been a really challenging week. Can't doubt our effort, but just weren't able to come to terms with what happened off the field and apply ourselves mentally,” said Paine. “When you are slightly off in Test cricket against a world-class opposition, you're going to be found wanting.

“We’re not going to win too many series without a Test hundred. That’s something we’ve to address, we obviously lost two of the best players in the world. And Cameron Bancroft is our leading run-scorer in the series. There are some gaps we have to fill, but on the flip side, it’s a huge opportunity for someone to step up and play Test cricket for Australia.

“South Africa were outstanding from Durban. They just completely outplayed us. Whatever happened to us, it happened, but I don't think we can hide behind the fact that, purely on skill, they completely outplayed us. They've been far too good.”

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