The defining chapter in Vernon Philander’s career has begun and he’s ready to make it a blockbuster, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Vernon Philander shrugs. He’s not interested in stats, Man of the Match awards, or international player rankings.
Does he want to be recognised once more as the ICC’s top Test bowler? ‘It would be nice,’ he says, ‘but I’d be lying if I said it is one of my goals’. How about the Man of the Series award he claimed after taking 15 wickets across the three Tests against India? Surely that’s a sign that the Vernon Philander of old is well and truly back? ‘Awards and compliments like that are always great. To be honest, though, I was happy to help the team come out of that series on top.’
Then the dam wall breaks when Philander is asked to elaborate on what transpired on the fourth day of the first Test at Newlands. India made a good start in pursuit of a modest target of 208 and South Africa were down a senior bowler after the injury-enforced sidelining of Dale Steyn.
Morne Morkel and Philander combined to get the hosts back into the game. Shikhar Dhawan, Murali Vijay and Cheteshwar Pujara were dismissed in relatively quick succession. That said, it was only when Philander returned for a second spell that the Proteas struck a telling blow through the baiting, and ultimately the snaring, of Virat Kohli.
To hear Philander relive that spell in his own words is to understand the significance of it. Clearly, the bowler won’t forget that moment any time soon.
‘I knew someone had to step up,’ he begins. ‘I got into a good rhythm early on and started to feel really good about our chances. Right then, I was confident that if I stuck to my processes the rewards would come.
‘I knocked over Vijay early on. They were three wickets down, but certainly not in the worst position considering they were chasing 200-odd. Kohli came to the wicket and got off to a solid start.
‘We’d lost Dale earlier in the game [due to a heel injury], but we still believed we could win the Test. We started the second innings well, but then India started to rebuild through Kohli and Rohit Sharma.’
Indeed, at 60-3 after 17 overs, the visitors looked to have come through the new-ball period relatively unscathed, given the small target. ‘Then I came back for my second spell,’ Philander continues. ‘I knew it was up to me to make the big play. I knew Kohli was the backbone of their team and that removing him would be massive for us.
‘We did well as a unit to keep him quiet for a couple of overs. I kept at the same line. I maintained that shape away from the batsman. He started to move across more and more to allow for the swing. Then I got one delivery to jag back and trap him in front lbw.
‘It was a perfect moment. The significance of Kohli’s dismissal, the fact it was my first game back and that it was on my home ground at Newlands with the crowd going mad … it was truly special.’ India went on to lose their last six wickets for 64 runs, while Philander finished with career-best innings figures of 6-42.
Philander is no stranger to five-day success. He became the fastest player to 50 wickets (since 1888) when he reached the milestone in his seventh Test. He took his 100th wicket in just his 19th Test, which was played against India in December 2013.
The Proteas were the top-ranked Test nation at that point. They had beaten England and Australia away in 2012. They had beaten New Zealand, Pakistan and then India in 2013. They boasted a number of world-class batsmen and yet many believed their success was down to the seam-bowling potency of Steyn and Philander.
The next three years were less than memorable for the team and those opening bowlers, though. Between February 2014 and September 2017, the Proteas lost series to Australia at home, India away, and to England home and away. They won 41% of their games during that period.
Steyn missed 18 of those 34 Tests due to injuries, while Philander was absent for as many as eight due to his own ailments and fitness concerns. When he did play, he wasn’t at his best. His stats during that period – 66 wickets at an average of 29.55 – certainly tell a story. After racing to 100 wickets in 19 Tests, Philander took a further 20 games to reach the 150-mark.
‘This whole series, it’s been a struggle to keep Vernon on the field,’ said former Proteas captain Graeme Smith after Philander was ruled out of the fourth Test against England in 2017 due to a back injury. South Africa went on to lose that series 3-1.
‘It’s frustrating when you’ve got a senior player and an outstanding performer like him and fitness is becoming an issue,’ Smith told ESPNcricinfo. ‘He is at that phase of his career where if he doesn’t take a look at his fitness, he could fade away pretty quickly.’
Philander did not appreciate the public criticism and scrutiny of his fitness. However, as he relays his story some six months after the incident, it is clear he has taken action to rectify the issue. He cuts a slimmer figure now than he did in 2017.
‘I’m open to criticism as long as it’s constructive,’ he says. ‘As long as you can look me in the eye and tell me what I did wrong, I’m happy to take it. But sometimes you get cowardly criticism where some guys will go to the media and say something just for the sake of saying something.
‘We played a lot of cricket last year and the legs were starting to feel a bit tired. I’m not making excuses, though. We all need to take responsibility for our actions. That’s exactly what I did.
‘I went away after that England series and spent some time on my fitness. Sometimes you play so much cricket that you neglect your body. You forget about the little things that can make a big difference in the end. Myself and my medical team spent two or three months looking at what we could improve. They got me back up to where I needed to be. The ball was coming out of the hand nicely again by the end of 2017. I’m happy with the results I’ve seen in early 2018.
‘I’ll put my hand up and say that I got it wrong during that phase of my career. There are going to be times when one bowler breaks down and is ruled out of a series [as has been the case with Steyn in recent years], and even times when one bowler breaks down in a game and the rest of the bowlers have to carry the attack [as was the case in the first Test against India at Newlands in January]. You need to be strong and fit enough to perform to the best of your ability in that situation.’
Philander has been buoyed by the optimism around the Proteas bowlers. The four-prong pace attack of South Africa was likened to the great West Indies unit of the 1980s (Andy Roberts, Michael Holding, Colin Croft and Joel Garner) at the start of the series against India.
‘I’m not sure where I fit in that comparison, as I’m not as quick as those okes,’ he chirps. ‘It was an awesome feeling, though. We heard about the hype before that first Test against India at Newlands, with everyone writing up Philander, Morkel, Steyn and Kagiso Rabada. To eventually see it unfold on the pitch was phenomenal. We saw how much firepower and intent there was in that combination. It’s always going to be difficult for a batting lineup to deal with that.
‘It was wonderful to see that combination coming together but really sad to see Dale breaking down with injury. Suddenly we had to deal with a bigger workload. Fortunately, we all stood up.’
Many felt that Philander proved himself as a leader and an individual performer in that Test series against India. He was considered surplus to requirements in the subsequent ODIs, though.
The Proteas lost that series by a humiliating 5-1 margin; a big wake-up call just a year out from the 2019 World Cup. South Africa’s depth, and more specifically the lack of experience in the bowling ranks, was mercilessly exposed.
Philander will head to England after the Test series against Australia for a stint with a county side. Thereafter, he will be back in the Test mix when the Proteas tour Sri Lanka and when they play Pakistan on home soil later this year.
Philander has played only 30 ODIs for South Africa between 2007 and 2015. He hasn’t given up hope of an ODI recall, though.
‘Look, I still see myself as someone who could make a contribution in the ODI arena. Obviously, the 2019 World Cup is in the back of my mind. Every player wants to win the World Cup and it’s certainly one of my greatest ambitions. I’m never going to give up on that dream. Hopefully, I will get another crack at it.
‘There’s not as much experience in the ODI side as there is in the Test set-up. That can make it difficult in terms of the bowling balance. You need the seniors to guide the younger guys.
‘I don’t think I’ve done much wrong as a limited-overs player,’ the 32-year-old adds. ‘At the same time, you are always looking to improve. Maybe I could work on a having a few more options when bowling at the death. I’d love to have that opportunity, though. I’d love to be the guy the captain turns to.’
Philander is recognised as one of the best Test all-rounders in the world. As at the end of February, he was sitting at fifth in the ICC rankings. While he battled with the ball in England last year, he finished that Test series with the best average (44) of all the South African batsmen. More recently, he made some important contributions at No 7 across the series against India.
‘I love my batting. Some people forget that I broke into the Western Province side [in 2004] as a batter rather than as a bowler. That hunger to perform with the bat has always been within me.
‘My role has changed,’ he admits. ‘I will bowl fewer overs these days, as I have more to do with the bat. In terms of batting, this new role at No 7 gives me more freedom to play my natural game. When you’re batting with the tail, you can become too defensive. When you’re up at No 7, you often get the chance to play alongside the top-order batsmen.
‘One goal I’ve set is to be part of a 100-run partnership as often as possible. Hopefully, I can do that regularly and increase the chances of getting a century myself. That’s definitely on the bucket list.’
Can that new role help his cause as far as an ODI recall is concerned?
‘It can’t hurt,’ he says. ‘Maybe I can open the bowling and then come in down the order to make a contribution with the bat? Perhaps that could benefit the ODI team.
‘Maybe my experience of English conditions will also count in my favour. I’ve played a lot of cricket there over the years and am going back this winter. I’m confident I can make a contribution for South Africa when they stage the World Cup there in 2019. I feel like my experience could be of some use to the team.’
So begins Philander’s defining chapter. He will be an important player for the Test side as they look to regain the No 1 ranking in the near future. He could well fight his way back into ODI contention over the next few months and travel to the global tournament in May 2019.