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Vernon Philander has the best returns from seven Tests in over a century. What's his secret? Hadlee-like consistency
April 9, 2012
7de Laan is the name of a popular South African soap opera. It is a television series about life on a street named 7th Avenue. There is very little relation between 7de Laan and sport. But that may change if the producers of the show discover that a record-breaking cricketer grew up and still lives on a real 7de Laan.
Vernon Philander, the seven-Test match 50-wicket sensation, is a product of Ravensmead, a lower-income area on the Cape Flats. He lives with his three younger brothers and mother, Bonny, in his grandparents' home on 7de Laan. He lived there when he first started playing cricket at the age of eight. He lived there when he worked his way through the Western Province age-group structures and played for South Africa Under-19. He lived there when he was first picked for the national team in 2007, when he was dropped little over a year later, when he worked his way back in, and when he became the latest bowling superstar.
Constants have played a massive role in Philander's success. The discipline he employs in line and length, complemented by subtle movements of the ball, have earned him Test cricket's best return from seven matches in over a hundred years. It was a skill that took careful crafting and years of hard work, as Philander negotiated an unconventional road to sporting success.
He grew up with his mother, and although he knew his father, Philander did not have a male role model until he started playing club cricket. A member of Tygerburg Cricket Club, where another international, Alfonso Thomas, was discovered, saw Philander playing in the streets of Ravensmead and introduced him to Hannes Adams, the club's chairperson. Adams is one of many elders who monitored Philander from a young age, having identified his talent, but not in the way we know it now. "Vernon was more of a batsman then," Adams said. "These days people only know him as a bowler but he was scoring a lot of runs then. He was always focused and he always knew what he wanted."
At the time unity was still a relatively new concept and opportunities for people from previously disadvantaged backgrounds, like Philander, were just starting to open up. Philander's ability got him his chance. He was picked for the U-13 Western Province team, where Nabeal Dien, manager of amateur and development cricket at the province, first met him.
Dien noticed a talented but somewhat troubled young man, who "compensated a lot for things he lacked" with absolute self-assurance. "Vernon was always ahead of his years in terms of his ability. The problem was his ability to fit in," Dien said. "He wasn't an easy guy to get along with through his younger years. He was the kind of fellow who would rub people up the wrong way. I didn't always see it as arrogance but a lot of people did. His over-confidence was almost arrogant in a way, and that carried him through."
By the time Philander was 14, he was playing for the first team at Tygerburg CC. He jumped straight from U-15 to U-19, and spent six months of his final school years on an exchange programme in England. He was picked for South Africa's U-19 team on its tour of England in 2003. He also went to the U-19 World Cup in Bangladesh the following year. By that time the batsman had become a bowler, and at 21 he was called up to the national side for a tri-series in Ireland.
Adams was not surprised by Philander's early stumbles. "I felt that they threw him into the wrong form of the game. From the start I could see he was more of a longer form player and Test cricket was the best form of the game for him."
It was a lesson not only in cricket but in the dangers of over-confidence. Dien said Philander took the setback seriously. "What I said to him is that we must take care not to take this game for granted. For him there was nothing difficult about it, but when you drop crucial catches in a game, the public measure you on that. That was a bit of a knock for him. We all said, 'Keep going. There is no way with your ability that you won't get back up there.'"
A period of introspection followed. Philander decided to focus on his disciplines, and as he entered his mid-twenties he became better at managing them. "In the last two years he has matured," Dien said. "I always felt that if he wasn't going to mature, he wouldn't make it, that he would one day lose his franchise contract and that would be the end of Vernon."
|"What I said to him is that we must take care not to take this game for granted. For him, there was nothing difficult about it, but when you drop crucial catches in a game, the public measure you on that. That was a bit of a knock for him" Nabeal Dien, Philander's Western Province mentor, on the bowler's early international career|
He also needed someone to help polish his skills and hone his accuracy. Dien credits Richard Pybus - who many won't acknowledge has a hand in Philander's growth because his tenure at the Cobras ended sourly after the 2011-12 season - for doing just that. "The discipline that Vernon needed more than anything, Pybus gave to him," Dien said. "He is a very disciplined coach. Vernon was the kind of person that on any given day, he wouldn't be able to execute his skills like he should. Pybus was able to bring that out in him."
The results were impossible to ignore, as Philander took 94 wickets in two seasons of first-class cricket. By the time he was recalled to the national team, he had the lowest average of all bowlers who had taken 250 wickets or more. When he was included in the squad for the Test series against Australia last year, popular sentiment among experts in South Africa was that he would not play and, like Richard Levi who was named in the Twenty20 squad, serve drinks and soak in the atmosphere. A few like Boeta Dippenaar said if Philander did play, he should open the bowling. Most dismissed that as a joke, insisting the deadly pair of Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel should not be separated.
The selectors saw sense and used Philander in the role he had blossomed in at domestic level. He did not let them down. Every time he picked up the ball, he was a threat. In five months he went from being a rookie to the leader of the attack.
The simple secret to his success is that he seldom bowls a bad ball. He is the embodiment of consistency. His agent, Arthur Turner, a former chief executive of Western Province cricket, sees "huge similarities between Philander and Richard Hadlee". "Hadlee may have been a touch quicker but he also hit good areas, swung the ball, got a bit of seam movement and built pressure."
Philander insists that if he sticks to his line, just outside the off stump, it will work "anywhere in the world". So far he has not been proved wrong. After success at home and in New Zealand, he opened his county campaign for Somerset with a five-wicket haul in his first match, which can only bode well for South Africa's tour of England later this year. Philander's Somerset stint is not his first experience in England; he has previously played at Devon and Middlesex, but adjusting to conditions this time is much more important for his international ambitions.
With so much having already gone right for him, it's tough to see how things could get better, and he may have to brace for a less fruitful times. Dien thinks Philander is well prepared for lean patches. "He is mature enough to know that cricket works that way. There will be days when nothing comes your way."
For now, though everything is going his way, Philander still has a lot he wants to achieve. He has joked about becoming the fastest bowler to 100 Test wickets. It's not a pipe dream, either. George Lohmann, the 19th century England Test bowler who emigrated to South Africa, holds the record, at 16 Tests. Philander has played only seven so far.
He also wants to re-establish his status as an allrounder. "He said to me that he wants to prove he can bat. I think he is looking to the other formats now," Dien said. Philander has two first-class hundreds to his name, and showed his capability with the bat in the Tests against New Zealand.
And then there are other goals. 7de Laan will not be Philander's home for much longer. He is building a house for him and his family in Kuils River, a suburb east of Cape Town. "For the family, it will be a good thing," Dien said. "If you went to the place [Ravensmead], you may find it hard to understand that a national cricketer is living there but he stuck it out there for a long time, because he felt a responsibility."
His new home may not be the only building that will commemorate Philander's achievement. Adams has another structure in mind to serve as a symbol of success at Tygerburg Cricket Club. "The legacy I want to build for Vernon Philander is a big indoor facility at our club," Adams said. "It will be for Vernon and Alfonso and all the guys who made it."
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