Unsung Philander relishes another crack at Australia
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