Philander prepares for tougher examination
More than Newlands, the Wanderers or SuperSport Park, the pitch at the University Oval in Dunedin is the surface Vernon Philander should remember best. It is the only one on which he has not taken a five-wicket haul in an innings and, by implication, has provided him with his biggest challenge so far.
Philander is in the fledgling stages of a career that looks set to take off with all the glory of an eagle in full flight and he cannot be expected to take a five-for every time he walks on to a cricket field. What he can expect is for things to get tougher after his dream start, and Brendon McCullum and Ross Taylor and to a lesser extent Trent Boult, gave him a glimpse of what that might look like.
With New Zealand nine down going into the third morning, Philander was handed the ball, a gesture that could be seen as him being given the opportunity for another five-for. Instead, he dished up five juicy length balls in succession to Boult who responded by planting them over the boundary rope. Perhaps what made it more insulting was that it was another bowler who was giving Philander the treatment.
In the second innings, it was a more intense battle against New Zealand's two set batsmen. Philander was properly tested. Although he still kept his usual line outside the off stump and got occasional movement away from the batsmen, he did not find the edge. He was forced to try different things on an unresponsive pitch, adjust his gameplans and out-think the opposition rather than just outplay them and he admitted it gave him a few more things to ponder.
"Your biggest test is always away from home," Philander said. "I've had the luxury of playing at home in my first few games so it's a bit of a mental test having to come here and perform as well as I have at home."
The New Zealand tour is Philander's first Test series outside South Africa and although he maintained that his line will probably work anywhere in the world, he said his lengths have had to change. "It's a touch slower than what we have back home .So I've got to bowl it slightly shorter than what I would do at home," he said.
The Seddon Park pitch in Hamilton is expected to be similar to the one the teams played on in Dunedin and, if anything, it will be drier and more difficult for the rest of the seamers. The one thing on offer may be movement and if it's there, Philander is convinced he can make it work for him. "If there is movement, I am probably the one bowler that will exploit it," he said. "I always back myself to get something out of the wicket and with the new ball it's a big plus for me [to try and do that]."
His opening partner, Dale Steyn, has not had the same success of late. Steyn took two wickets in the Test but it has become a talking point that he has not had a five-for in an innings where he has bowled with Philander, something that may be tough if Philander keeps taking all the available wickets. While analysts have started to discuss whether Steyn is bowling within himself, Philander does not believe there is anything to be concerned about. "Dale is a wonderful bowler and bowlers always go through patches like that sometimes," he said. "It's going to take one spell to get him back."
Kruger van Wyk said he expected as much from the man he played against in first-class cricket in South Africa at least six years ago, before moving to New Zealand and is enjoying facing him again.
"There are not too many weak links in the South African side. Philander has been a top performer in first-class cricket for as long as I can remember, even when I was back there," he said. "They ask a lot of questions of you as a batter so you have to be on top of your game. But we are up for that challenge, we look forward to playing some good sides and you want to be tested against good players. It will be great to face them again."
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent