This is an edited extract from a new book, South Africa’s Greatest Bowlers: Past and Present by Ali Bacher and David Williams.
Vernon Philander had a better start in Test cricket than any of the great South African bowlers who came before him. He made his debut in 2011 against what was then one of the toughest sides in the world: Australia. Billed officially as a series, it consisted of just two Tests – but he took 14 wickets at an average of 13.92.
In the first Test in Cape Town he was described as ‘almost unplayable’, and he needed to be. In the first innings, where he took three wickets, Australia made 284 and South Africa could manage only 96 in reply. Australia came to the wicket for a second time effectively starting their innings at 188 without loss and, with more than three days in hand, expecting to build a massive total that would put the match beyond South Africa.
Instead they were shot out for 47, and an amazing 23 wickets had fallen on the second day. It was only the third time in Test history that one day of play had involved all four innings. Inevitably, questions were asked about the wicket. But, as Telford Vice wrote in his match report in Wisden, ‘None of this could be blamed on the groundsman. That it was only the third Test ever to be played at Newlands in November offered a better explanation. The others, against Australia in 1902-03 and 1921-22, were also over in three days. Reports of those matches make no mention of the weather, but Cape Town is known for its significant November rainfall, which raises the water table and makes for lively pitches.’
Vice noted that while there was bounce and swing, ‘the surface prepared for this match was far from unplayable’ and had not prevented Aussie captain Michael Clarke from scoring a brilliant century (‘of ripping aggression and unusual quality’) in the first innings – 151 in 176 balls.
The Australian second innings almost went into the record books for the lowest Test total by any side in history. The record is 26, and at one stage they were 21-9. Philander was the star in taking 5-15 in seven overs, to give him eight in the match for 78 runs. ‘He showed the importance of first-class experience and took to his role like an old hand,’ wrote Firdose Moonda. ‘He bowled with exceptional control, made use of seam movement and exploited everything he could from the pitch.’
In the second Test at the Wanderers, Australia struck back to win narrowly by two wickets, but Philander could not be blamed, as he took 5-70 in the second innings, in which Australia reached the 310 they needed to square the series.
There followed another two Tests for him against Sri Lanka, where he did even better, taking 16 wickets for 202 runs – at 12.62 apiece. In the first Test, at Centurion, South Africa won by an innings and 81 runs by tea on the third day. Philander again led the attack with 5-53 and 5-49 – 10-102 in the match. That gave him four five-fors in six Test innings, and made him only the fourth player in history to record four or more five-fors in his first three Tests.
He missed the second Test in Durban with a knee injury sustained in training, but returned at Cape Town to break a dangerous 142-run partnership between Thilan Samaraweera and Angelo Mathews, and took three wickets in each innings.
In her review of the series against Sri Lanka, Moonda noted that Philander ‘bowled a questioning length throughout and had the Sri Lankan batsmen constantly confused about whether to go forward or back to him. He operated as an out-and-out strike bowler, and had the ability to apply the stranglehold on run-scoring and thereby became Graeme Smith’s go-to man. After just four Tests, he is already the spearhead of the South African attack.’
With 30 wickets in his first four Tests, next on the fixture list was a three-match tour to New Zealand in early 2012. Here the highlight for Philander came in the second Test, where he took 10-114. He destroyed the lower order in taking 6-44 in the second innings. That was his fifth five-for in six Tests, for a Test average at that stage of 13.60.
Of course there was no shortage of commentary on why he had been so effective. The key point seemed to be
that the batsmen were uncertain about how to play him, because of a combination of accuracy in line and length and metronomic discipline. Captain Graeme Smith commented that: ‘He’s always in that area. In my career, the only person who’s sort of resembled that was maybe a Glenn McGrath. He was always in that area of uncertainty.’ Philander said it was his ambition to be known for his accuracy, and McGrath was one of the bowlers he tried to emulate. ‘It’s probably between Glenn McGrath and Polly [Shaun Pollock]. Those are the guys I try to idolise, the ones I base my game on.’
In addition, it was noted that Philander could swing the new ball and reverse-swing the old ball. New Zealand’s Ross Taylor said: ‘When you can swing it away and reverse it in as Philander can, it does become tough on the batsman to find out where the off-stump is.’ Swing and accuracy can be diminished by bowling
at very high speeds, and it is significant that Philander bowls at around 130km/h – ‘He’s not quick,’ said Taylor, ‘but he’s quick enough to hurry you up.’ Philander is a great believer in achieving fitness through actually bowling, rather than running or doing gym work. Another possible factor in his success was his relatively long apprenticeship in first- class cricket before he was picked for South Africa.
Philander grew up in the tough community of Ravensmead in the northern suburbs of Cape Town, an area full of gangsters and drug crime. He played all the sports available to him at primary school and high school, and it was only in matric that he began to focus on cricket.
Leading Western Province coach Alfonso Thomas remembers Philander well. ‘I was coaching juniors at Tygerberg club when he came through. He comes from a very poor background, so to speak, and he’s a humble person. The facilities at Tygerberg weren’t the best: there was probably only one net for six or seven junior teams – nothing like what they have in other parts of the city. But the guy’s got a strong character. He certainly had a lot of self-belief in his own ability, and he’s certainly made the most of what he’s got. He’s not the quickest, but he always preferred accuracy.’
Philander played at the PG Bison U15 Week, and attended the national schools Coca-Cola Week three times, representing SA Schools in his final season, in a team that also included AB de Villiers, Faf du Plessis and JP Duminy. In March of his matric year, while on holiday, he received a call from Western Province coach Peter Kirsten to play in the four-day first-class final against KwaZulu-Natal. He took 2-18 in the WP victory.
Philander played his first ODI for South Africa against Ireland in 2007, on the day he turned 22. After South Africa made 173-4 in a rain-shortened innings, Ireland were bowled out for 131 runs, mainly thanks to Philander’s 4-12 in 5.5 overs, the best bowling figures in an attack that included Makhaya Ntini and Jacques
Kallis. In his next six ODIs – against India, Zimbabwe and England – he was less successful, taking only two wickets. Then his international career seemed to stall.
In the four years that followed, he improved his craft while playing for Western Province. Throughout that
period he was at the top of the national first-class averages, but was kept out of the national side by Andre Nel, Dale Steyn and Shaun Pollock. He finally made his Test debut against Australia, at the age of 26, with devastating results.
In the two seasons before his Test selection, Philander had taken 94 wickets and he was entirely confident with his technique. ‘It’s something I obviously practised and trained for the past three years,’ he said after his Test debut, ‘and I’ve enhanced those skills and got to understand my body and how my action works, so it’s something I’ve got used to.’ His stock ball would deviate, going away from the batsman off the seam. Ali Bacher points out that Philander is a seam rather than a swing bowler. Philander told the Sydney Morning Herald: ‘All surfaces are conducive to me. I rely on good line and length on the fourth stump so I can nip it away or nip it back. That comes into play on most wickets all over the world.’
Philander reached the milestone of 50 Test wickets in only seven matches, the second fastest in Test history, and a feat equalled or bettered only by two bowlers who played in the 19th century. After seven years in the national side, with some interruption for injury, he has taken 216 wickets in 60 Tests, at the exceptionally good average of 22.16 – the 11th best among all bowlers with 100 wickets. Although he could not keep up his phenomenal early rate of economy and wicket-taking, Philander was always capable of delivering a match-winning performance.
South Africa’s Greatest Bowlers: Past and Present by Ali Bacher and David Williams, published by Penguin Books, is available at leading bookstores nationwide.