Vernon Philander’s form has nosedived since 2012 and he needs to get it back or face becoming a footnote in history, writes TOM EATON.
The figures were 21-9. It wasn’t exciting, not any more. Half an hour earlier we had leapt to our feet and given each other high fives. Reducing Australia to 13-3 was fantastic. At 13-4 the shouts had become astonished, less ‘Yes!’ than ‘What the hell?’ 18-6, and people started glancing over their shoulder, checking the reactions of the fans in the next row, as if they feared they were the butt of an elaborate cricketing prank. Now, at 21-9, it just felt ridiculous. It was wonderful, impossibly wonderful. But it was also just, well, stupid.
In November 2011, a bubble of unreality glistened over Newlands. Vernon Philander had just taken 5-15 on debut, and Australia were one wicket away from the lowest total in Test history. We knew it couldn’t last. And it didn’t. Australia limped to 47. Bizarrely, it felt that some sort of normality had returned.
Perhaps we willed that normality into being because we’re realists. We might indulge in fantasies of batsmen scoring a triple hundred before lunch or teams getting shot out for nought, but if it happened we’d be as unsettled as we were at Newlands that afternoon.
Which is why we always knew Philander couldn’t keep going like that forever. Nobody takes a wicket every five overs for a whole career. Nobody.
Even as he enjoyed the kind of strike rate last seen when Victoria ruled her empire, we knew the lean times would come. They had to. Eventually there would be long afternoons where the ball did nothing and everything hit the middle of the bat. There would be wicketless innings. He might even get smashed around for a session or two and have to be taken off by his shell-shocked captain.
But even the most conservative realists would have struggled to imagine that the times would get quite so lean or last quite so long. After all, how does someone who started impossibly well find himself looking so improbably bad now?
The unplayable match-winner of 2012 has disappeared, replaced by a hard-working but often ineffectual third seamer. It seems a bizarre claim to make when the bloke has a bowling overage of 22 and a strike rate under 50, but the grim fact is that since the beginning of last year, Philander’s wickets have cost 46 apiece. He’s also become largely irrelevant with the new ball. In 25 opening bursts since October 2013, Philander has taken only seven wickets. Yes, he doesn’t spray it around and that control probably helps Dale Steyn’s early breakthroughs, but South African cricket can no longer pretend it has two opening bowlers.
Not that he’s dynamite with the old ball, either. His last five-for was eight series ago. He’s gone wicketless in eight of his last 15 bowling innings.
Numbers don’t always tell the full story. They don’t reflect the borderline lbw shouts denied by umpires, the edges almost brushed, the catches that drop short or fly a finger-length out of reach. But in Philander’s case, they are an accurate reflection of a decline that seems almost too sudden and steep to be real.
How do we explain this disastrous transformation? At first glance, it doesn’t seem physical. Philander doesn’t look different. He’s not carrying more weight than normal. He hasn’t changed his action. So is the change psychological?
I think it’s possible. But it’s not a change in the Philander’s psyche. Instead, I think the shift has happened in the minds of international batsmen. I suspect they have started playing Philander on his merits rather than on his reputation.
When a new bowler enjoys a spectacular start to his career, he is quickly wrapped in an aura of mystery. Every ball is seen as an event, and batsmen play him accordingly. It’s not just an outswinger: it’s a Vernon Philander outswinger. Batsmen who have left thousands of them suddenly begin to wonder if they’re facing something entirely new, and start second-guessing their own game. The Philander Effect snowballed: every wicket he took planted the seed of the next one.
But in 2013, as the flood slowed and then become a trickle, the phenomenon started working in reverse. The fewer wickets he took, the more batsmen calmed down and began to see him for what he is: a fast-medium bowler who keeps it relatively tight and does a little bit through the air. He doesn’t have a dangerous bouncer. He doesn’t have a surprise yorker. The aura is gone, and batsmen can return to regular programming: identify the ball, play the ball.
Another possible explanation is more technical.
In his debut season, Philander’s length was ridiculous. He set up an inquisition two metres from the batting crease, and applied the screws to the minds of batsmen. His cross-examinations were complex and relentless. Leave or play? Play off front foot or back? Will it go away or hold its line? It’s slow enough to play across the line, but is it worth risking one that nips off the seam or keeps a little low?
He is no longer asking those questions, at least not as often and aggressively as he once did. I don’t have the Hawkeye pitch maps at my disposal but my gut tells me that Philander has started bowling fractionally too short. He has wandered a few inches back down the pitch and lost his way. Batsmen who were flustered into injudicious shots now have an extra few microseconds to make wiser decisions. Those who used to offer a respectfully straight bat now have the room to play across the line.
Philander can be lively when the mood takes him, but without the pace of Steyn or the height of Morne Morkel his greatest weapon will always be the late deviation of the full-pitched delivery. The shorter he bowls, the less dangerous he is. Bouncers have their uses but increasingly often Philander’s are looking like admissions of defeat.
I might be wrong about his length, but if it’s true and he is creeping back towards his toes, is anyone telling him that he’s doing it? If it’s deliberate, is anyone telling him that it’s not working?
Whatever the cause and whatever the solution, the fact remains that the world’s most penetrative bowler in 2012 is now among its most ineffectual. A year ago we were wondering how long the drought would last. Now we’ve started wondering how long his career will last.
No one disputes his talent or his heart but the elephant in the room will not be ignored much longer. If Philander doesn’t start taking wickets – lots and lots of wickets – his Test career might not survive 2016.
Sportspeople enjoy dramatic rhetoric. Now or never. Make or break. Most of the time it’s not true: there’s usually a second chance, another week, next year. But it’s not over-dramatic to suggest that this tour of India is the Last Chance Saloon for Philander. If he is going to go head into the home summer with any job security, he needs this series to be a big one: at least 15 wickets, including that overdue five-for.
Unfortunately, his timing couldn’t be worse. The most important series of his professional life is happening in pretty much the worst place on the planet for a seamer in desperate need of a dozen scalps.
Indian fans have been warning us about it for years now. Back when Philander was cricket’s darling, they remained resolutely sceptical. Yes, they said, it’s all very exciting but let’s wait until his first Test series in India before we start throwing around labels like ‘great’.
I didn’t pay them much attention at the time. I struggle to take people seriously who throw their toys – and bottles – if their team isn’t winning. They can also take jingoism to laughable lengths: if a non-Indian has just hit a double-century with a broken hand, the internet will instantly be full of 14-year-olds explaining why Virat Kohli could make 300 with two broken arms.
I took their dismissal of Philander as typical one-upmanship. But of course behind the fanboy bombast there is a hard truth. India is one of the greatest tests a seam bowler can face. He knows that every pitch he plays on will have been deliberately prepared to render him impotent. He will get no grass, no lift, no carry. In India, he has only two uses: to grind the varnish off the ball so that the spinners can get stuck in, and to provide a variation of pace at one end to mess with batsmen’s perception of the flight at the other. No seamer can really claim greatness unless he has mastered India.
With all due respect, greatness is probably out of the reach of Philander. Unless he stages one of the most remarkable turnarounds in sports history, that ship has sailed. But he can still aspire to excellence. He has no other choice.
It sounds like a monumental challenge, perhaps even an impossible one: a man in the worst shape of his international career, having to remember how to scintillate in an arena made of pain and dust. But there is some hope. The fact is, some seamers have survived, and even thrived, in India.
Home fans would probably insist that the greatest of them all was Kapil Dev, who banged away from the 1970s to the ’90s to take over 200 wickets on home soil. The enormity of that achievement becomes clear when you consider that the next most prolific seamers in India were Javagal Srinath with 108 wickets and Zahir Khan with 104. Indeed, those three bowlers are living proof of how tough it can be to bowl fast in India because they represent the sum total of human beings who have managed to take more than 100 Test wickets on the spirit-killing pitches of India by delivering the ball seam-up.
Nobody could ever deny Kapil’s titanic record or the skill and persistence that helped create it. But for me, he can’t be crowned as the greatest seamer ever to operate in India for one important reason: he might have been bowling in India, but he wasn’t bowling at India. For me the most impressive records belong to tourists, the outsiders who mastered alien conditions and dominated India in their own backyard.
Some mighty names stand out. No non-Indian seamer has taken more wickets in India than Courtney Walsh. Wes Hall and Andy Roberts also did their fair share of damage. But I’m not sure there has been a tougher challenge for any seamer than bowling in India, at India, between about 1995 and 2013: if he wasn’t smashed high and straight by Virender Sehwag, or whipped away by Mohammad Azharuddin, or driven square and cut late by Sachin Tendulkar and VVS Laxman, then he was presented with a barn door by Rahul Dravid.
It took very special bowlers to subdue that lineup at home, and it’s no surprise that the likes of Steyn, Allan Donald and Shoaib Akhtar are at the forefront of that era. Pace will always defeat reflexes. But Philander can take hope; because while the express pacemen were dealing out shock and awe, two classic medium-fast seamers were quietly stacking up victims. Glenn McGrath and Jason Gillespie had different approaches to making the ball deviate but both shared the same simple philosophy: keep it tight for long enough, make the batsman play often enough, and mistakes will be made. It was a philosophy that helped them snare 33 Indian wickets each, and it should offer Philander hope.
Hope is pretty much all Philander has at the moment. High summer will bring England and the promise of juicier home pitches, but whether he will get to play on all of them is another matter. National selectors tend to move slowly and cautiously. Axing Philander would be an exceptionally dramatic move. And yet, if he returns from India with only a handful of wickets, they will have a very tough time defending his place in the team when strike bowlers like Kyle Abbott, Kagiso Rabada and even Marchant de Lange are knocking on the door. If the drought continues, the England series might be Philander’s last for a while. And, for a career so studded with unlikely events, wouldn’t that be the strangest outcome of all?
This article appears in the current Business Day/Sunday Times Sport Monthly.