August 19, 2012

The Philander puzzle

He found overwhelming success in his first seven Tests but is now struggling in England. It's all to do with the nuts and bolts of how he bowls

Fifty one wickets at 14.15 runs per wicket in seven Test matches, against three different opponents. Ten wickets in a match twice, five wickets in an innings six times, and four-fors twice. Vernon Philander has been a phenomenon that has taken Test cricket by storm.

Philander is the second-fastest in Test history to 50 wickets, and those 50 came at the speed at which Usain Bolt runs. It was as if every time Philander bowled an away-going delivery, it found the outside edge of the batsman's bat and then the safe hands of the wicketkeeper or slips. And every time the ball nipped back after pitching, it eluded the bat and either trapped the batsman in front or disturbed the stumps behind him.

So it is surprising that there is nothing really extraordinary about Philander's bowling. He has simply relied on the basics of maintaining a disciplined line and length - a strategy he believes "works anywhere in the world". Surely, though, there must be something that made him so much more successful than most have managed to be at the start of a career? And why isn't the magic working in England at the moment?

This is an attempt to decode the Philander puzzle.

Movement off the surface without any visible hints
Philander looks quite innocuous when compared to his fast bowling colleagues, Morne Morkel and Dale Steyn. He doesn't have the disconcerting bounce that Morkel can achieve, nor does he get the ball to swing prodigiously in the air at high speeds like Steyn does. He's not as tall as Morkel nor does he run in as fast as Steyn.

But Philander compensates for the lack of these natural gifts by getting the ball to dart around after pitching, without giving clues about where it will go.

Thousands of hours of practice hardwire a batsman to look for certain clues in a bowler's action - like the wrist position at the time of release, the position of the seam, and which way the shiny side faces in the air - to predict the ball's behaviour in the air and off the surface. If the ball starts swinging in one direction the moment it leaves the bowler's hand, you can assume with a reasonable degree of confidence that it is unlikely to dart the other way after pitching.

For example, if a bowler bowls a good outswinger, the chances of the delivery coming in to the right-hander after pitching are minimal. Batsmen comfortable against the moving ball have mastered the art of playing in that imaginary second line.

Unfortunately, this theory isn't going to help batsmen facing Philander, because his deliveries rarely move in the air before pitching, especially when the ball is a few overs old. He delivers it with a completely upright seam, and nothing in his wrist position or action betrays his intentions with regard to movement off the surface.

As a batsman, you can only prepare for what you can see, and if the ball hasn't moved an inch before it lands, it's fair to assume it won't do so after pitching. But that isn't always the case with Philander's deliveries, most of which change direction after hitting the surface. This forces the batsman to read him off the pitch. Most batsmen struggle even when reading a spinner off the surface because there is so little time to adjust, so you can imagine their plight against a quicker bowler like Philander.

Would you rather face Steyn, Morkel or Philander? Ten out of ten batsmen will choose Philander over the other two, seven days a week

Teasing and testing line and length
For all the movement he gets off the surface, Philander would be only half the bowler he is if he bowled a few inches left or right of the line he bowls currently. He bowls from fairly close to the stumps and maintains a line consistently on the fourth or fifth stump - a few inches outside off. His length is also a bit fuller than Steyn's and Morkel's, so it not only forces the batsman to get on the front foot, it also ensures that the ball can't be left on bounce - since it is always around knee high. Since the batsman is forced to get on the front foot, there isn't enough time to adjust for lateral movement off the surface.

Lowering the guard
Would you rather face Steyn, Morkel or Philander? Ten out of ten batsmen will choose Philander over the other two, seven days a week. The fact that he has been taking wickets with alarming regularity is unlikely to influence their decision - an irrational one - because batsmen are conditioned to believe that a lot of swing, disconcerting bounce and genuinely fast bowling are more difficult to tackle than subtle movement off the pitch. However, the level of difficulty a bowler poses isn't always directly proportional to the number of wickets he takes. There are lots of bowlers who look very dangerous but don't bowl enough wicket-taking deliveries. It doesn't come as a surprise that most batsmen automatically concentrate harder when facing the likes of Steyn and Morkel, and are happy to switch ends to face Philander instead. If you are happy to face a certain bowler, the odds of lowering your guard against him increase. While Philander's line and length force a batsman to play at almost everything, his pace - or the lack of it, when compared to his bowling partners - makes him the more desirable bowler to face.

For these reasons, he could be a very potent partnership breaker in slightly seamer-friendly conditions. But the first two Test matches in England have exposed him to the thorny side of international cricket. Philander is at his best when the ball zips off the surface, because it reduces the time the batsman has to adjust to the lateral movement. The moist and soft English pitches may have offered him movement, but because they are also slow, England's batsmen have had the much-needed extra time to make the right adjustments.

Unless he makes some adjustments of his own, Philander is likely to struggle in dry subcontinental conditions as well, because those placid tracks won't provide the substantial sideways movement he relies on, and the lack of pace will give the batsman a fraction extra time.

Philander has impressed us with his speed in the 100-metre dash. Now he needs to brace himself for the marathon that is international cricket.

Former India opener Aakash Chopra is the author of Out of the Blue, an account of Rajasthan's 2010-11 Ranji Trophy victory. His website is here and his Twitter feed here

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