Ed Smith
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Former England, Kent and Middlesex batsman; writer for the New Statesman

Who'd have thunk it?

Predicting how a player is going to perform has always been a tricky business

Ed Smith

April 25, 2012

Comments: 31 | Text size: A | A

Vernon Philander celebrates the wicket of Tillakaratne Dilshan, South Africa v Sri Lanka, 1st Test, Centurion, 3rd day, December 17, 2011
Philander: did you see him coming? © Getty Images

Did you pick them first time? Did you recognise how good they were at first glance? Or did you conveniently revise your opinion much later, when the results started to come in?

I've been asking myself that question as I've followed the career of Vernon Philander. He now has 51 wickets in just seven Tests. Only the Australian seamer CBT Turner, who reached the milestone in 1888, has reached 50 wickets faster than South Africa's new bowling sensation. I don't mean any disrespect to the legends of the past, but I think it's safe to say that Test cricket has moved on a bit since the days of Turner. So Philander has had statistically the best start to any Test bowling career in modern history.

Who saw that coming? I can claim only half-prescience, and I sadly lacked the courage to go on the record. I first encountered Philander when I was captain of Middlesex in 2008 and he joined the club as our overseas pro. I didn't know much about him beyond what I'd been told - "Allrounder, hard-hitting batter, maybe a bit more of a bowler." Armed with no more information than that, I found myself batting in the nets against our new signing just a couple of minutes after I'd met him.

After the usual pleasantries, it was down to the serious business of Philander bowling at me on a green net surface with a new ball in his hand. So what did I think? Honestly? I thought: "Hmm, I thought they said he was a 'useful allrounder'? Looks more like a genuine opening bowler to me. But I'd better keep it to myself - maybe I've just lost it a bit?"

Philander was just as impressive in matches as he was in the nets. He quickly went from bowling first-change to opening the bowling, then to being our strike bowler. Was he just having a great run of form or was he always this good? Looking back on it, I wish I'd said to everyone - "Forget the fact he can also bat, this bloke is a serious bowler."

When we form judgments of players, we tend to be conditioned by the labels that are already attached to them - "bowling allrounder", "wicketkeeper-batsman", "promising youngster". Once a player has been put in the wrong box, our opinions tend to be conditioned by what everyone else has said. We are clouded by the conventional wisdom that surrounds us.

Look at Andrew Flintoff. It took years for everyone to realise that he was one of the best fast bowlers in the world in the mid-2000s. That was partly because we were distracted by his swashbuckling batting. We were so busy judging him as an allrounder that we failed to notice that he was holding his own against the best in the world, purely as a bowler.

When I played against Matt Prior in his early days at Sussex I thought he was among their best batsmen. The fact that he also kept wicket led him to be underrated as a pure batsman. He could completely change a game in one session and was the often the player I was most happy to see dismissed.

The dressing room is often too slow to acknowledge that a young player is already a serious performer. It cuts against the overstated notion of "He's still got a lot to learn." I have a strange sense of satisfaction at having helped propel the then little-known fast bowler Graham Onions into the England team. Other players weren't convinced he was the genuine article. But he knocked me over so often in 2006 that I had no choice but to become his greatest advocate. I haven't changed my mind: when he is fit, he is one of the best bowlers around.

I played against Tim Bresnan in one of his first matches for Yorkshire. He thudded a short ball into my chest in his first over. "Can't believe that hurt," one of my team-mates scoffed, "it was only bowled by that debutant bloke." True enough. But every top player has to start out as a debutant.

The dressing room is often too slow to acknowledge that a young player is already a serious performer. It cuts against the overstated notion of "He's still got a lot to learn"

The gravest errors of judgement, of course, make for the really good stories. When Aravinda de Silva played for Kent in 1995, he brought along a young Sri Lankan to have a bowl in the nets at Canterbury. What did the Kent players think of the young lad, Aravinda wondered? The general view was that he was promising but not worth a contract.

It was Muttiah Muralitharan.

Sometimes, of course, everyone fails to predict the trajectory of a career. Earlier this month, Alan Richardson was named one of the Wisden cricketers of the year. That is exalted company to keep: Kumar Sangakkara and Alastair Cook were among the other winners.

Richardson is a 36-year-old county professional who has played for Derbyshire, Warwickshire, Middlesex and now Worcestershire. For much of his career, Richardson has had to fight for every game he has played. He started out as a trialist, travelling around the country looking for 2nd team opportunities. It wasn't until he turned 30 that he became an automatic selection in first-class cricket.

Richardson was a captain's dream at Middlesex: honest, loyal, honourable, hard-working and warm-hearted. By their early 30s, most seamers are in decline and have to suffer the indignity of watching batsmen they once bullied smash them around the ground. Not Richardson. Aged 34, he taught himself the away-swinger - typical of his relentless hunger for self-improvement. In 2011, Richardson clocked up more first-class wickets than anyone.

About to turn 37, he says his chances of playing for England have gone. I hope he's wrong. No one could more richly deserve the right to play for his country. Watching Richardson pull on an England cap would be one of the finest sights in cricket - the perfect example of character rewarded. And it would be further proof that some cricketers will always be quiet achievers, inching towards excellence without vanity or fanfare. They deserve the limelight more than anyone.

Former England, Kent and Middlesex batsman Ed Smith's new book, Luck - What It Means and Why It Matters, is out now. His Twitter feed is here

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Posted by   on (April 26, 2012, 19:27 GMT)

After watching all the SA -NZ tests live i have to agree with Posted by mondotv on (April 26 2012, 01:48 AM GMT)

Posted by notvery on (April 26, 2012, 12:49 GMT)

I hate to say it but i think jonesy2 is right, what has the massivley overratted Tim Bresnan done? i mean hes got 43 wickets in 11 matches and if you take out the 11@19 hes got against Australia in 2 matches well the numbers dont stack up. i mean if you take the easy beat teams out of the equation, like Australia, you can see he averages 42 against bangladesh. Heck i guess you take your wickets where you can, even the easy ones you get against the Aussies.

Posted by   on (April 26, 2012, 12:02 GMT)

@johnathonjosephs - You are referring to Marvan Atapattu, if I am not wrong ! Definitely one of the very proficient and technically sound batsman from the little island... unfortunately he didn't get a good ending to his career...

Posted by anantbio on (April 26, 2012, 11:56 GMT)

How come the article fails to mention the predictions made about sachin tendulkar ?/

Posted by   on (April 26, 2012, 11:47 GMT)

Great article and a completely new view point as to how we percieve Cricketers by tags !! However, statistics may not always be the true marker for greatness. I remember Ajit Agarkar from India being the fastest bowler to take 50 wickets in the ODIs... Don't know what hit him that he was not able to sustain the momentum... :(

Posted by 98-10_157-0 on (April 26, 2012, 3:10 GMT)

@Nutcutlet - I agree with your comments but Ian Austin, in fact, played 9 ODIs for England in 1998 and 1999 averaging, somewhat disappointingly, 6.80 with the bat and 60.00 with the ball (although he had a quite respectable economy rate of 4.55). Flat Jack was particularly unlucky not to be capped although his girth probably counted against him!

Posted by scorbos15 on (April 26, 2012, 1:58 GMT)

Simply Superb article, your description about already pre defined image of a player is perfect - we do it very often, great presentation ! Thanks

Posted by mondotv on (April 26, 2012, 1:48 GMT)

Philander is fast, skilfull and accurate.At the other end there's a bloke called Dale Steyn who's not too bad either. And waiting in the wings the mercurial Morne Morkel. To me it looks the best fast attack since the great West Indian teams of the 80s. Englands is good - very skilfull but SA's has a rawness and edge to it that could collapse any batting lineup. It's a shame so many pitches are tryi to blunt fast bowling at the moment.

If you want predictions I think Mitchell Starc has the potential to be one of the great fast bowlers - he just needs to adjust his length, learn control and stay fit. Tall, strong, natural inswinger with a devastating bouncer.

Posted by Meety on (April 26, 2012, 1:07 GMT)

Philander is a statistical freak, & my guts tell me he can't possibly keep that standard going for much longer. However, I though t the same thing about Steyn! LOL! == == == My Ozzy take on this interesting article, mainly revolves around the line "The fact that he also kept wicket led him to be underrated as a pure batsman." In Oz, I think NSWs Neville, should be looked at as a batsmen & forget the fact he is a more than useful keeper.

Posted by kasyapm on (April 25, 2012, 21:21 GMT)

Nice read. Guess it is a combination of more than one reasons (para 1) that leads to recognition.

Posted by indiarox4ever on (April 25, 2012, 18:39 GMT)

@Douglas Porter-- I think his name was Mole or maybe it was Gooch?

Posted by johnathonjosephs on (April 25, 2012, 18:20 GMT)

There was a man who debuted in 1990 and only got 1 run from his first 6 innings (yes, 5 ducks). One of the world's greatest captain continued to put faith in his abilities. 6 Double centuries later......

Posted by   on (April 25, 2012, 16:08 GMT)

Back in 1975 I remember some guy beginning his Test career for England with a pair. Wonder what became of him? He had a weird name - Goole or Mooch or something like that.

Posted by   on (April 25, 2012, 15:04 GMT)

Wonderful article . Enjoyed your insights a lot Mr.Smith.

Posted by   on (April 25, 2012, 15:01 GMT)

Nice article. Remember one hell of prediction(extracted from one of the articles from 'The Hindu' by MAKARAND WAINGANKAR ): "....Former Australian fast bowler Rodney Hogg who took 41 wickets at an average of 12.85 in the Ashes of 1978-79 made a prediction about Shane Warne in his column in The Truth newspaper that Warne would take 500 Test wickets much before Warne even played for Victoria.

Hogg was sacked and the newspaper reportedly apologised to readers for misleading predictions made by their columnist.

When Warne ended with 708 Test wickets, Hogg said, "I was wrong. He got 208 wickets more"....."

Posted by   on (April 25, 2012, 14:26 GMT)

I had.. I had seen him as very valuable player in International Cricket Captain (A game of cricket management :) ) - around 5 years back. Though it looks ridiculous, the game has lot of accurate data about abilities of young players.

Posted by   on (April 25, 2012, 11:51 GMT)

Nice read. Interesting anecdote about Murali. Then again, Murali gave no indication of his bloom until almost 30 tests old (upon which he proceeded to chalk up a bagful almost every time he played). The opposite is true too. Throughout the late 80s till nearly early 2000s - England were obsessed with finding "new-Botham"s. Flintoff managed to briefly fit the bill, but Alex Tudor, Defreitas, Ben Hollioake, Chris Lewis and so many others simply played out their entire careers trying to fit that (huge) box.

Posted by jonesy2 on (April 25, 2012, 11:43 GMT)

i like the "he has got a lot to learn" bit, what a load of rubbish that is, if a guy is playing at a certain level and performing at a certain level whats the point in saying he has a lot to learn, ponting, hussey, kallis, tendulkar, ask these guys whether they still learn from playing, the answer would be yes. athletes never stop learning

Posted by   on (April 25, 2012, 11:41 GMT)

he is a new sensation of test cricket.i like him very much

Posted by jonesy2 on (April 25, 2012, 11:39 GMT)

i dont understand. why are graham onions and tim bresnan mentioned in this article? neither are close to top players. philanders deal is amazing really he just started off ridiculously well then kept going mind you he has only played on bowler friendly pitches and NZ batted horrendously bad at times and gifted him wickets simply by missing straight balls

Posted by BellCurve on (April 25, 2012, 11:35 GMT)

I have been calling for Philander's selection for more than 2 years. My friends even teased me about it. The prevailing view in SA (promoted by guys like Kepler Wessels and Barry Richards) was that Philander was not fit enough (he was even called fat) and that he was a bit of a loose cannon. Anyway. I am happy to have been proven right. Very soon Philander will also start to contribute for SA with the bat. By the time his career is over he will be mentioned in the same breath as Kapil Dev, and, if everything goes right, even Richard Hadlee and Shaun Pollock.

Posted by Nutcutlet on (April 25, 2012, 9:25 GMT)

Another thoughtful & thought-provoking article, Ed. Thank you. The county pro/ journeyman who is destined never to wear his country's cap is worthy of the cricket-lover's unreserved admiration - and it is heartening that Wisden has honoured Alan Richardson by naming him one of the Five this year. This set me off on a little bit of research (back to 1980, for the sake of argument) - and the following county worthies are in the same rare category as AR: Jack Simmons ('85), Phil Bainbridge('86), David Hughes ('88), Nigel Briers ('93) & Ian Austin ('99). None of the above even received ODI recognition - and for some reason, Lancashire players seem to be over-represented in this list. And none, IMO, is more worthy than the only fast-medium bowler amongst them: this year's county pro flag-bearer. Thank the cricketing gods for Wisden and what it does, in this and other respects!

Posted by   on (April 25, 2012, 8:41 GMT)

@Analyseabhisek, you are right. That was in the warm-up games, but Kumble absolutely destroyed them in the Test series with his top-spinner and flipper. This article also makes me think of the story of Glenn McGrath, who upon moving to Sydney from the country, billed himself to clubs as an all-rounder. Once he started playing in a low grade for one club, he batted 3 in his first match and was bowled first ball. The coach put it down to bad luck and nerves, but when it happened in the next match, he knew something was up.

Posted by Romanticstud on (April 25, 2012, 8:37 GMT)

It is like Shane Warne. He took one wicket in his first series at 228. No-one would have thought that he would take 708 test wickets. Another is Jaques Kallis. He scored 1 and 7 in his first two test innings. It took another year before he was included in the South African team he now has 12000+ test runs at an average of 56.78, higher than Ponting and Tendulkar.

Posted by TommytuckerSaffa on (April 25, 2012, 8:15 GMT)

Good article, enjoyed the insight and personal experiences of actually playing/facing current guys on circuit.

Posted by Vinshada on (April 25, 2012, 5:55 GMT)

Enjoyed the honesty of the article.

However, in 1995 Muralitharan was already playing Tests for Sri Lanka and had bowled them to victory against England in 1993 in a one-off test in Sri Lanka. I would have thought hindsight was already available in 1995 for Kent to sign him?

Posted by Nadeem1976 on (April 25, 2012, 5:52 GMT)

After seeing Phalender bowling in last 7 matches i can easily say that he will be the difference between eng vs sa series to decide who is #1 team in test cricket.

Adding to this mix Styen (the best fast bowler in the world for while) and then other SA fast bowlers, i believe that if SA post a decent total on the board and give their three strike bowlers the freedom then it will be extremely difficult for england for the first time playing at home. I want eng to lose to have a balance in test cricket.

If SA don't win this time then they will not be able to become #1 team in next 3 years. Australia is coming back . For england it's going to be very hard 1.5 years period to stay as #1 team in the world.

Posted by smalishah84 on (April 25, 2012, 5:36 GMT)

interesting article indeed. Sami looked so promising and look at where he is now :p

Posted by mehulmatrix on (April 25, 2012, 4:01 GMT)

Another nice post from Ed. Feels good to see articles about county players who have worked hard and excelled. Its not only those at International level who work hard or only to be seen.

Posted by   on (April 25, 2012, 3:52 GMT)

Good article, an intersting one.

Posted by analyseabhishek on (April 25, 2012, 3:42 GMT)

I can't help but remember a certain Keith Fletcher (Am I right, the English coach during the 1993 tour of India?) observing that a certain tall, skinny, bespectacled leg spinner did not carry any threat because of his inability to turn a single ball from leg to off! What if someone had told him that this same guy would end up with, well, 619 test wickets!

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