Philander shows he can adapt to succeed
It used to take Vernon Philander just four and a half overs to take a wicket. For his first seven Tests, every 27 balls, a batsman would surrender. Today, it took three times longer. After 89 balls Philander claimed his first wicket. Fourteen overs of probing consistency ended in reward when Ian Bell prodded, edged and was caught at gully in an over when any of the deliveries could have yielded the same result.
It began the way Philander always begins. A regulation good length delivery, aimed at the top of off stump and needing to be defended was. The second asked a more difficult question, coming from close to the stumps and moving past the outside edge. Then there was the teaser, which just left Bell who thought about having a jab but decided against it. And the slightly shorter one. And then Bell could take no more.
The same line, the same good length but Bell had a tickle. A tickle with the little finger on a baby's hand but a tickle nonetheless. It was a touch too far. Like a Venus flytrap, Philander had closed in and Bell was ingested, proving that the value of consistency that Philander has relied on so far, had not diminished.
Philander's contrasting start to his career could have suggested something different. The 51 wickets he took in his first seven Tests came at the remarkable average of 14.15 and featured six five-wicket hauls. It was a start that superseded expectations, especially since that feat had not been achieved in over a hundred years. Like something that comes around once in 120 years, it could not be expected to be sustained and to have expected as much would have been unrealistic.
But to see Philander's strike rate go from shining as brightly as the sun on a clear blue sea to clouding over almost as quickly as an English sky does cannot be ignored. In this series, he has taken six wickets, only one less than James Anderson and Imran Tahir but three less than Morne Morkel and Dale Steyn. His strike rate sits at 98, which translates to Philander taking a wicket every 16 overs in the series, instead of every four and a half.
If it had increased to 54 or even somewhere slightly more than 60, Philander's gradual stabilising could have been explained. If he started off with a strike rate of 35 or 40, the same would be true. The obvious difference points to what we already know about all good thing. But it may not tell us why.
Philander's Test career began against an Australian side in transition and a Sri Lankan batting line-up that veered from embarrassing to adequate, except for one Test match in Durban, which he did not play through injury. It continued against New Zealand, batsmen that can be scared into getting out or bored into it. His patience and persistence paid off against batsmen who got bored when he did not and in conditions that were helpful for seam, swing and subtlety, the three things Philander does best.
In England, those conditions would seem tailor-made for him but this has not been a typical English summer. Rain has made for slower pitches, rolling cloud has favoured swing not seam and even the liveliest surface so far, here at Lord's, lost some of its spice when the sun came out. The England batsmen take a lot longer to lose concentration and Philander has found the going tough.
That does not mean he has bowled badly. Most of his deliveries have been on a good length and as Michael Holding said on television commentary in "a good grouping," in terms of their line outside off stump. Bell referred to it as him getting "nice and tight to the stumps so he makes you play and he bowls an immaculate length." Be it to left-handers or right, at any of the venues, Philander has not veered from his disciplines.
He has found the edge in every match but often that edge has fallen short. All he has done is turn back, run in and find the edge again. Only a handful of times has Philander showed annoyance that those edges did not translate into success. "Sometimes it does get a bit frustrating when it doesn't even carry halfway to the slip cordon but it's part of life, part of English conditions and part of the Duke ball," he said. "You are not always going to be able to pick up wickets all the time. I am still bowling really well."
Instead of the numbers in the wicket column standing out, the ones elsewhere do. Philander's economy rate is the lowest among the South African pack - at 2.40. Only Anderson has given away less than him, of the recognised bowlers. It is also well below the runs per over he maintained before this series - 3.17 - and has served as an indication of his ability to create pressure at one end, even if not taking wickets.
"We know our roles within the set up. If guys like Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel are bowling well and striking, then it's my job to do the holding job. We rotate those roles quite well," he said.
The other two, who once formed South Africa's new ball pair, are doing exactly that and lead the wickets tally. Their performance could result in calls for them to be reunited as the opening duo and for Philander to be relegated to the third seamer's role. Morkel, who was previously the first-change bowler, made a case for himself with a spell in the morning session that was one of his best in the series because of the way he worked over the England openers.
Initial inconsistency dissolved into incision and an array of hostile short balls greeted Andrew Strauss. The captain wore one on the chest, immediately after he outside-edged a ball that came back into him and lasted six more balls before being bowled by another one that moved in with the angle and beat him.
Morkel operated to plan as though he had been wound up with it implanted in him. He snorted aggression and was rewarded for it. Steyn was the same. Brought on to bowl at Jonathan Trott - to try and get him out lbw if he looked to play down the leg side, he achieved his aim almost immediately.
Graeme Smith used his bowlers to target particular batsmen and won most of the battles he picked them for. Jacques Kallis was the one he did not get right. The plan was to try tempt Ian Bell, in the same way he did at Headingley, into playing at a wide one but Bell stood firm. Eventually, he played at one from Philander, a telling reminder that all the magic of the seven Tests before this tour had not evaporated into ashes yet.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent