Morkel's form poses selection headache for South Africa

Morne Morkel celebrates a wicket AFP

Morne Morkel claimed his first Test five-for in five years against Zimbabwe. It is a statistic that barely tells the story of the kind of danger he poses, but one that he hopes will allow him to keep his spot in the starting XI for the summer's bigger contests.

"It was nice to get wickets under my name so when it comes to selection, guys will maybe think about me," Morkel joked after the Boxing Day Test.

The reality for Morkel is not quite so funny.

Despite being the most successful seamer in the match, he is the also the one most at risk of missing out when Dale Steyn returns, as soon as next week. South Africa take on India at Newlands from January 5 in the first of three Tests, and will likely stick to a frontline attack of three seamers and a spinner in Cape Town. Kagiso Rabada, the highest wicket-taker for South Africa in 2017 and second-highest overall, and Vernon Philander, a menace on seaming pitches, are all but secure. This leaves the selectors to choose between the swing of Steyn and the bounce of Morkel, who admitted he "never knows," if it could be him on the bench.

"We'll have to see," Morkel said. "Dale has been bowling exceptionally well in the nets. He looks strong, he is very fit and I reckon he would have been a handful on this [Port Elizabeth] wicket but it's another week for him to freshen up."

It's also another week without game time for Steyn, which may work in Morkel's favour. While Steyn has not played an international fixture since November 2016, Morkel has featured in all but one of South Africa's Tests since March. Morkel missed the second match against Bangladesh in October after suffering a side strain in the first and needed six weeks to recover.

Despite only playing one 20-over Ram Slam game (Steyn featured in five), Morkel took to the field in a three-day match before the Boxing Day Test. He bowled 19.4 overs and took seven wickets in that match. Steyn, meanwhile, returned 0 for 16 from his 12 overs for CSA XI against the touring Zimbabwe side. On workload alone, that may have meant Morkel was going to play ahead of Steyn in the four-day, day-night Test, but a viral infection Steyn picked up on the eve of the match saved the selectors from needing to choose between the two.

Now Morkel has international overs in the legs while Steyn has spent the last week in the nets. That may make it prudent to play Morkel in the first Test against India, while sending Steyn off to play a three-day match. South Africa's provincial teams have a round of fixtures from January 4 to 6, which may be used to prepare Steyn for a Test return on spicy Highveld surfaces.

South Africa have asked their groundsman to prepare pitches with pace and bounce and to leave grass on them to facilitate seam movement as they prepare to push the home advantage against India. Even at St George's Park, where it is usually slow and flat, the ball was nipping around. Though leaving more grass on the pitch is a common tactic in pink-ball matches, it was also a convenient time to let India know what they are in for.

Morkel was careful not to sprout too many threats too early. "For me, there is no personal sort of message, for us it's important not to get involved in those sorts of things," he said. "If we are strong and we are fit and we get the results in the wickets column, it will make nice reading in the papers. In the past, the build-up has always been great, the talk of the wickets, the talk of the bounce, we do have a slight advantage, but we still need to land the ball in the right areas, still need to bowl with intensity."

He emphasised the third session as being particularly important for the South Africa attack because it's then that their endurance will be tested. "It's going to be about that last session in the day when the ball is soft and conditions are tough," Morkel said. "Majority of the runs in Test cricket are scored after tea time. So for us, it's going to be if we have enough petrol in the tank to knock India over at the back end of the day."

Morkel's own fitness over the last few months has been a focal point for him, especially because he spent most of 2016 on the sidelines with what could have been a career-ending back injury. He worked on smoothing out his action and prioritising international cricket. "With the back injury I had, it was important for me to really look at the schedule and find windows where I can do my conditioning work," he said. "England was a big tour for me, I wanted to be fit and I knew if I went to IPL, which can be quite a demanding six weeks, I would be in trouble."

Whether he will return to the T20 leagues remains to be seen but for now Morkel is committed to playing for South Africa for as long as possible, even as an understudy to Steyn. "Mentally, I am a lot fresher [when I take breaks], it gives me a lot more time to work on certain things," Morkel said. "When you play back-to-back series or games you don't really have that time to work on certain things. But now, to set goals and to try and reach that is very pleasing."