Stephen Cook doesn’t remember if he was one of the opening batsmen approached by former Proteas coach Gary Kirsten to comment on Vernon Philander’s skills, but he, too, has a Chinese water torture story to tell.
Vernon is definitely one of those bowlers where, when I’m sitting back and thinking about my career I probably would say Philander 1, Cook 0 was the scoreline.
You have those bowlers where you feel over the course of a career they had one over you and he was one of them. I always felt that his unrelenting accuracy, and even the fact that he didn’t bowl with great pace but he hit the bat quite hard, always made you feel like you were under pressure.
Coupled with the movement that he could get you always knew you were in a contest and felt more rushed than you would against a guy of that pace. I got to see him at work in that Test series we won in Australia in 2016: the Aussies had their pace in their (Mitchell) Starcs, (Josh) Hazlewoods, whatever, and Vern matched them with just outright skill.
If I think about the countless hours in team meetings we chatted about how to play Vernon, but the problem is he’s always got a plan B, C, D and E. You saw him in the recent tests, where (Joe) Denly and those guys stood a metre outside their crease he wasn’t too proud to bring the keeper up to push them back into their crease and then nick them off from there.
I always found the hardest part of facing Vernon was when he wasn’t trying to swing the ball, when he just got that seam up straight and went for that seam movement – even that wobble seam he developed in the second half of his career made him unplayable.
I remember playing against him in England for Durham and he was playing for Sussex, and those Duke balls were swinging around corners. That day he got his arm a little bit lower and he was swinging it around corners.
Although it looked very impressive he wasn’t very effective. I remember in the second innings he went back to the normal Vernon style of hitting his lengths and didn’t try to swing the ball too much – he got that nip and cleaned me up in the first or second over.
If you’re talking tactics and game plans what you try and do with bowlers is eliminate modes of dismissals. For instance you’d go ‘if this guy gets me out LBW then I’ll change my guard’. The fact that Vernon could nip the ball both ways meant all modes of dismissal were always in play, you never felt you could cover for the LBW or the caught behind.
I can think of countless times where he’d nick me off first innings and then I’d say to myself ‘make sure you cover your channel’ and the next thing in the second innings he gets you LBW or bowled through the gate and you think ‘jeez, he’s done me again.
On the field he had a presence about him, and because he was always at you and you were never getting away you always felt under the pump. He’d mutter under his breath to you every now and then, but he wasn’t overtly aggressive. Sometimes that’s the hardest aggression: when you know it’s genuine and it’s coming from the guy’s skill.
He never gave you that loose ball so you never felt you could throw a punch back, so to speak, and you felt constantly under pressure. Even if you survived a spell, the game didn’t go forward. Also Vernon was happy even if it took him five or six overs to work you over and get you out because he wasn’t conceding runs. He bowled you 25 or 30 balls and got you out for only four runs.
Another thing that stands out about him is he could play in a variety of conditions: he could play at a quick, bouncy, Wanderers, or get you out on a low, slow Paarl wicket with wicket to wicket bowling. I didn’t buy into the idea that he needed helpful conditions to be effective.
Maybe he wasn’t quite as effective on a couple of subcontinent tours towards the end of his career, but that was also coming off the incredibly high standards of a guy averaging 20 with the ball and suddenly averaging 28 on the subcontinent, which is still world class. Maybe he wasn’t as dramatic with the five-wicket hauls but he was holding the game up by going for two runs an over even if he wasn’t taking wickets.
The interesting question is why he didn’t have much of a white ball cricket career with South Africa because, if I’m not mistaken, he made his debut for the country in white ball cricket. I think he had all the attributes of a one-day allrounder. With the bat he hits the ball hard and he hits a long ball as we’ve seen him do some serious damage in the MSL.
I really don’t know, but without much thought put into it perhaps his accuracy made him more predictable for hitting in a one day game? Also in white ball cricket the ball doesn’t do as much off the seam, so that was slightly less of a factor in certain conditions.
I think the important thing to consider about Vernon’s success is when he made his debut he was the finished article and wasn’t learning the game. He knew his game and what he needed to do, and that’s why he executed from day one.
I remember captaining him in a couple of SA A games and the plans were really simple. You knew you were in control of the game when Vernon had the ball, and he also built up pressure for the bowlers at the other end as well.
*Cook was speaking to Simnikiwe Xabanisa
Photo: Carl Fourie/Gallo Images