The Proteas are that much more dangerous now that Vernon Philander is back to his metronomic best.
Prior to the Test at Centurion, Philander had claimed just 10 wickets in the six matches played in 2014. More alarming than the dearth of wickets was the loss of what many in the five-day game consider a superpower.
Australia’s Glenn McGrath had it, that ability to hit the same length with metronomic consistency. That skill defined Philander during the first two years of his Test career. However, after a string of indifferent performances in 2014, there was reason to believe that Big Vern had lost that special knack.
The recent performance at Centurion certainly put paid to those assumptions. After a disappointing year, Philander regrouped to produce a masterclass.
Dale Steyn hogged the headlines following his six-wicket demolition of the West Indies on day four. It was a superb spell of bowling, and the haul of wickets allowed South Africa’s Great One to reach yet another milestone. Twenty-five five-fors in Test cricket is a special achievement, and South Africa are fortunate that the best bowler in the world has shown no sign of slowing down just yet.
Steyn so often provides the spark that starts the Protea fire. But on this occasion, it was Steyn who finished the job rather than started it. The man who did the initial damage was Philander.
It was clear from the outset that Philander was a bowler on a mission. At times, this desire to succeed cost South Africa. Philander insisted that Proteas skipper Hashim Amla review a couple of the umpiring decisions in the West Indies’ first innings. They were poor reviews, as the television evidence subsequently confirmed. Perhaps Philander was just that desperate to get back among the wickets.
He had some luck with that first dismissal of Devon Smith, who looked to have missed the ball completely but was nevertheless given out by the third umpire. But there was no doubt regarding the quality of that delivery, or the ones that followed.
Philander persisted with the same length, and was rewarded when three more specialist batsmen, one in Shiv Chanderpaul who has scored over 11,000 Test runs, nicked off. In the second innings, Philander continued to apply the pressure, and team-mates Steyn and Morné Morkel benefited from that effort.
In the past, South Africa has relied too much on Steyn to start and finish the job. While the West Indies are lacking in form in quality, and are at this moment ranked eighth in the world, it must encourage coach Russell Domingo to see that Philander can be the go-to guy. It bodes well for the rest of this series, as well as the one against England at the end of 2015.
Philander was the most economical bowler at Centurion. He conceded 29 runs in 15 overs in the West Indies’ first innings, and then just six runs in seven overs in the second dig. These are stats that illustrate Philander’s consistency and the fact that the West Indies battled to play him.
Steyn finished strongly at Centurion, and will take that momentum into the coming clash at St Georges Park. It was at this ground last March where Steyn took four wickets in the Australians’ second innings and inspired South Africa to a famous victory. Clearly he enjoys bowling in Port Elizabeth, and the West Indies batting lineup can expect another brutal examination.
That said, the visitors should be wary of another bowler who is far slower, much more predictable, and yet just as unplayable when he gets it right. The Test at Centurion was the Proteas’ first of the season, and one would expect the team to move up a gear in the coming weeks. It follows that we are yet to see the best of Steyn and Philander in this series, and that there should be more success at St Georges and Newlands.