Philander hits Australian wall
If South Africa's batsmen are being ruled by fear against Mitchell Johnson then Australia's are showing nothing of the sort against Vernon Philander, who began the series ranked as the world's No. 1 paceman but is increasingly struggling to live up to the expectations of his lofty perch against Michael Clarke's team.
While Philander's overall record remains prolific, his career average of 18.75 has been torn up in opposition to Australia over the past three matches. Discounting his first series against the Australians on seaming South African pitches in 2011, he has managed only five victims at 59.20 while also missing the 2012 Adelaide Oval Test with a back injury.
His absence from that match has been a source of some derision within the Australia camp, as demonstrated by David Warner before the series when he quipped, "I would have liked to see him bowl at Adelaide in that second Test when he apparently hurt his back - and was bowling in the nets three days later." The tourists' notion that Philander is a fair-wicket operator has only grown stronger with time. An indifferent game at Centurion saw him lose top spot on the ICC leaderboard to Dale Steyn.
With that in mind, the Australians have sought to absorb Philander's new-ball spell and then attack him when he returns later in the innings, heaping further pressure on Steyn and Morne Morkel to bowl more frequently and thus sapping them of energy and pace. Emboldened by the treatment Philander received from Clarke and Michael Hussey in Brisbane during the previous series, Australia have presented the South African with the greatest hurdle of his three-year Test career.
"He's probably a bloke that thrives on conditions and obviously the batters made the most of it the other day and backed themselves to play with a bit of confidence," fellow seamer Peter Siddle said of Philander. "A lot of teams have sat back and let him build the pressure on them, which has got him wickets.
"The way the boys attacked him and approached him the other day, getting off strike and swapping left and right-handers, that puts the pressure back on him rather than him building all that pressure. The boys have learnt how to play him. We're not sitting back and worried about what he's going to bring. We can put it back on him, build the pressure and keep building that on the team. I think that's the strength that showed the other day with the big innings first up."
Conditions at St George's Park in Port Elizabeth may yet be more amenable to Philander's seam-up skills, but that will also assist an Australia pace collective that is riding confidently in the slipstream left by Mitchell Johnson's ferocious assault on the batsmen of England and South Africa. Siddle said Johnson's potency allowed himself and Ryan Harris to go smoothly about their work without worrying overly about straining for wickets.
"It's always nice to have someone who's bowling so well and building so much pressure on the batsman that they get to the other end, their footwork is a bit shaky and we can make the most of that," he said. "You can build a bit more pressure the way I bowl with a certain plan, rather than trying to blast the batsmen out when I am bowling with him. It probably does change my approach a little bit."
The most important contributions of Siddle and Harris at Centurion were arguably the dismissals of Hashim Amla, after the No. 3 had, with the exception of one snorting short delivery that clattered into his helmet grille, shown an ability to play Johnson somewhat better than his team-mates. Siddle admitted to similarities between his plans for Amla and those for the similarly wristy Kevin Pietersen in Australia during the Ashes.
"That's something we looked at. Even though Amla and Pietersen do look different with their technique, the way to get them out is very similar," Siddle said. "We set very similar fields to when we were bowling to Pietersen and I tried to approach it the same sort of way.
"I have had a bit of success with players who play that type of game, it gives me an opportunity to nip it back in at the stumps and they can also fall to the ball that is going away. Everyone has fun bowling to the best players in the world, that's what Test cricket is all about. Sometimes it definitely doesn't come off, but it is nice when it does."
Whatever Amla achieves in the remainder of the series, Siddle observed that the hole left by Jacques Kallis was even bigger than players on either side had accounted for, noting the difference made to Faf du Plessis by his promotion to No. 4. Beaten by a pair of unplayable deliveries, du Plessis was also subjected to plenty of verbal barbs from an Australia team that has not forgotten his Adelaide Oval rearguard in 2012.
"I think so. I think it's a massive loss - a bloke that's batted at number four for them for such a long period of time. He's been a key. A bloke averaging over 50 does leave a big hole," Siddle said. "There's a couple of young blokes in that line-up they're obviously looking to stand up. Hopefully we can keep pushing ... and building the pressure on those guys.
"It's obviously a great start, to be able to put them under a lot of pressure after that first Test and know there's going to be a lot of pressure for them to stand up in this next Test. We've just got to keep doing what we're doing. I think our planning has been great and our execution with bat and ball in the past six months has been tremendous. We've just got to try and keep doing that."
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here