South Africa in Australia 2012-13 November 1, 2012

Unsung Philander relishes another crack at Australia

Vernon Philander is least bothered when people still question how he manages to pick up wickets. In Australian conditions, he is likely to be deadlier and silence a few more critics

November 9, 2011. Vernon Philander made his debut against Australia at Newlands. He was given the new ball and took eight wickets, including 5 for 15 in the second innings as Australia were bowled out for 47.

November 9, 2012. Philander will play Australia again at Brisbane. In 12 months, he has taken 63 wickets in 10 Tests and averages 15.96.

Despite his remarkable numbers, in the last year, Philander has been regarded with suspicion from Hamilton to Headingley. In New Zealand, they were too afraid of Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel to give much thought to him and in England, they called him nothing more than a county trundler. Both countries changed their minds when he took 21 and 12 wickets respectively in their backyards.

"Stats don't lie," was his comeback. In Australia, he does not need to pull out that line. Here, he is respected, even feared. The Australia batsmen have been victims of him once before and know what he is capable of. His response to that? Nothing.

Philander has learnt to treat criticism and compliments with the same indifference because both can be quite fickle. "I don't really care how people receive me," he said. "For me, it's just to go out there and do my thing. As long as we take 20 wickets per Test, I'm happy. I just try and play my role in taking those 20 wickets As long as I am doing that, I don't give a hell what people have to say about me."

Most cannot understand how and why he takes so many wickets. The destructiveness of a Steyn or Morkel is more obvious - swing and bounce - but with Philander it's far more subtle. There is little flashy about being able to move the ball just enough both ways, certainly nothing as emphatic as stumps splattering or batsmen being hit.

But that's what Philander can do: exploit anything in the surface and expose weakness in the opposition. If they can't figure out how he does that, that's too bad as far as he is concerned. "The longer people keep on harping as to why I take wickets, the better for me. It's going to take them some time to work me out. If people can't work me out, all the better for me," he said.

Batsmen may not know what Philander is all about, but he makes sure to find out everything he can about them. Philander's preparation involves careful strategic planning rather than endless overs in the nets.

He said he bowls between six and eight overs per practice session and then spends time fine-tuning his approach. "When you bowl the first ball in a Test match, you to be ready for it and make sure you've got simple tactics for different batters," he said. In Australia, he suspects he will have to make adjustments to his length, "probably to bowl a bit fuller," and has been working on that.

But there is also an overarching reason that Philander has had so much success. Steyn calls it his "super consistency," and Philander agrees that discipline has brought him enormous rewards. "It's just the control factor. If you land the ball five out of six times in the same area the batters have to make a mistake somewhere along the line. I just keep it really simple and wait for the batters to make errors."

On the seamer-friendly pitches that are expected in Australia, Philander hopes to have even more opportunities to show off that mastery. "Upfront, I like to see guys playing at me with the new ball. It gives us more chances to strike," he said. "It's definitely a plus if you can move it just enough and it catches the edge all the time." In England, he found the edge on many occasions and the ball repeatedly fell short of the slips. That is unlikely to be the case in Australia, where the pitches should have sufficient carry to make Philander a dangerous prospect.

To imagine that Philander could be more devastating than he has already been is difficult but in conditions that may assist him better than any other, it remains possible. Already he has had unprecedented achievement, something he credits with being allowed to do what he does best from the beginning.

When Philander was picked as an opening bowler and Morkel relegated to first change, there was much shaking of heads. Some were of the opinion that Morkel and Steyn remained the best two bowlers in the attack and should share the new ball. Philander defied them but would not have been able to do that had he not been entrusted with the role he was best accustomed to.

"In domestic cricket I'd taken the new ball and if you're going to give a guy a chance you want to give him a chance doing what he's good at," he said. "For me, that's with the new nut and that's exactly what Gary has done, he's given me the new nut and the freedom to perform."

In that space, Philander has already had many important feats and he said his accomplishments occasionally overwhelm him. "Sometimes it does get to you, but I'm the type of guy who goes back and finds time just to reflect on what I've done. I don't let the hype get to me."

And when he does, there's always someone like Gary Kirsten "to bring me back to earth," Philander joked. Kirsten was doing throw-downs on Monday and struck Philander on the shoulder, so hard that he could not bowl on Tuesday and had a swelling. He laughed off the coaches' faux pas as a way of keeping him grounded.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • David on November 4, 2012, 8:53 GMT

    @ Meety on (November 03 2012, 22:05 PM GMT) I have no idea whether Philander can keep up the pace he has set. History would teach us that it is unlikely. I figure the odds are against it, but it is not in any way luck that got him those 63 wickets. He has bowled some really fine spells. To keep that up would be somehow superhuman…but life, and cricket, are always full of surprises. Those true, all-time greats always have something unique, something really special, & when he is on song it does sound like a bloody big choir. He does just enough to keep the batter guessing, sucker them into the wrong stroke. Maybe he will be found out - maybe he'll keep em guessing?

    Steyn however has proved that he is the real deal. He'll go down as one of the greats. Now we get to see if he can ultimately be said to be one of the all-time greats - the real masters…Wasim, Glen, Curtly, Waquar, Sir Rich…etc. He is close, but he does need more definitively match winning performances to reach that plateau.

  • Andrew on November 3, 2012, 22:05 GMT

    @Greatest_Game on (November 03 2012, 20:36 PM GMT) - great start to his career, but he actually did look bog average as his 20 overs were dispatched at 4 rpo. The only good (albeit great) bowler on display in the entire match has been Steyn.

  • David on November 3, 2012, 20:36 GMT

    @ Jono Makim. Saffers grow up playing with the Kookaburra, & use it in all formats. 40 years ago, as a young schoolboy, I opened the bowling with a shiny, red, gold-lettered Kookaburra. That new ball was as hard as a rock and felt really good in the hand, like a missile. When Steyn & Morkel come charging in, they'll have in hand the ball with which they learned cricket - the ball Steyn delights in because twice an over he can "legally try to kill someone with it!" I'd be worried about Steyn too, especially if I had to face him, which I would only do wearing a full suit of armor, footwork be damned!

  • David on November 3, 2012, 20:13 GMT

    @ Hammond - you made similar predictions about SA vs England, the team you supported over your native Australia, the team you claimed had whitewashed everyone over the past few years - conveniently forgetting that Pakistan whitewashed them! You predicted that England would trounce SA, but after England were flattened, including the "most comprehensive defeat in test history," you ate a huuuge slice of humble pie, & started making sensible posts for a while. Now your'e back to baseless predictions.

    Cricket basics: Philander is NOT a swing bowler. He bowls seam bolt upright, & moves it both ways off the seam, AFTER it has pitched. He confuses the batsmen, who don't know what to do. Look at Strauss' (the Captain you revered) very last test dismissal. Completely clueless, he left a dead straight medium paced ball and was plumb lbw, never to play again. He was "trundled" right out of test cricket by a "bog average medium pacer," as were 62 other batsmen, in 10 tests @ 19 runs each!

  • Dummy4 on November 3, 2012, 12:02 GMT

    I think a lot will depend on the batsmen. If they are happy to work him around and don't go playing T20 style shots they should be relatively comfortable with him. I think where the Aussies struggle is against bowlers who reverse the old ball. I'm not sure if Philander does that? Do the Saffers use a kookaburra ball at home? The English bowlers had knowledge on the Kookaburras through Cooley and Saker, but will the Saffers be able to get the same life out of it? I'm more wooried about Steyn's new ball swing and Morne recreating his irresistably bouncy on target spells of fire breathing awesomeness!

  • Paul on November 3, 2012, 10:14 GMT

    I've seen Philander live in South Africa and New Zealand, and obviously on TV at other times, and I think he'll do well in Australia. He bowls exactly the same sort of stuff that was so successful for England a couple of years ago; bangs away on the right length and bowls a very tidy line. He nips it both ways, just enough to expose the edges, and he'll find them. His slippers won't see the ball falling short too often. I wouldn't be at all surprised if, at the end of the series, he's the best bowler from either side - remember what Jimmy Anderson did in Aussie a couple of years ago and how he did it. Philander is more than capable of doing exactly the same.

  • David on November 3, 2012, 6:39 GMT

    August 19, 2012. In "The Philander Puzzle," a Cricinfo column, former India Opener Aakash Chopra contrasts Philander's 51 wickets @14.15 in his first 7 matches to only 7 wickets in 5 test inngs in Eng, asking "why isn't the magic working in England?"

    That very afternoon, at Lords, in Eng's 2nd inns, Philander opens. Cook is out 2nd ball. His next over Strauss goes 5th ball. Next morning, 3rd ball of his 3rd over he gets Bell. Later, Eng need 51 runs with 2 wickets in hand but Vern has the new ball. Anderson survives Vern's 1st ball lbw appeal then edges safely to leg. Prior takes strike - gone in 2. Finn goes next ball. 5 balls, tail gone, match & series won, name on the honors board. 5 for 30 Ave 6 Econ 2 SR 17.8. SA won by 51 runs. Philander scored 96. The 5 he dismissed took 1 run off him!

    10 tests in 3 countries against 4 teams. 63 wickets @ 19.18. Don't underestimate Vern, he's a very smart bowler. Aakash Chopra did, & took a lot of stick for it. He won't do that again.

  • Mike on November 3, 2012, 0:21 GMT

    I must have missed the bit where everyone called Vernon a county trundler when the Saffers toured England. What a ridiculous statement, cricket is a stats game and Philanders are mind blowing. Sure they will probably level out closer to 25 over time but this fella is outstanding and for me the main reason SA now find themselves top of the pile in the Test rankings with a good chance of staying there for a good while.

  • Geoffrey on November 3, 2012, 0:04 GMT

    Philander will be as good on Aussie wickets as Hoggard was- basically fair to middling. Aussie batsmen will wait for the swing to disappear and then will camp on the short one. It's Morkel and Steyne that will clean up, this bloke will be treated like a bog average medium pacer. If Bedser and Tate couldn't take lots of wickets bowling this type of bowling in Australia, there aint no way this bloke will.

  • disco on November 2, 2012, 23:56 GMT

    I suspect that SA will open with Phil and Morks.

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