Hurting Philander eases South Africa's pain
Close to midnight after the first day of the Test, something was bothering Vernon Philander. "Toothache … you are starting to annoy the shit out of me now," he tweeted as the hour approached. "24 hour dentist, where are you? Sandton."
By the morning, Philander was ready to take his irritation out on someone. It showed in the first ball he delivered: short, outside off, seaming in a touch and drawing a careful push from Ajinkya Rahane. It showed even more the next delivery, which reared up and jagged away, forcing Rahane to play. It set the tone - as Allan Donald had asked his quicks to do - for the morning.
With a covering of cloud, moisture heavy in the air and a pain in his tooth, Philander beat MS Dhoni's bat, squared him up, and attacked the stumps more than any of the South African bowlers had on the first day. Although he was not the man who claimed the Indian captain's wicket, his rewards rolled in after that.
Rahane was dismissed in typical Philander fashion - poking at one outside off stump that nipped away at the last second. Zaheer Khan was comically caught on the back foot as he tried to do something that resembled playing at one that wobbled in the densely damp air. Ishant Sharma's defences were breached by a ball that was perfectly directed at the top of off stump.
All three dismissals paid homage to the consistency of Philander's bowling, the subtlety of movement he produces and the uncertainty he creates in batsmen's minds. After dismissing Ishant, Philander stood one wicket away from collecting his 100th Test scalp. But for a Morne Morkel no-ball in the over that followed, he would have had a chance to reach the landmark, but the extra delivery Morkel bowled accounted for India's last batsman.
Philander still has the second innings and the smart money will be on him to claim his 100th. If he gets there, he will become the fastest South African to the landmark, reaching it in 19 Tests, one fewer than Dale Steyn.
Philander is already the joint second-fastest to 50 Test wickets. The rate at which he has racked up those numbers could easily conjure up an image of a snarling speedster who juggles the ball as he delivers it. Philander is not that. He succeeds through consistency. The first day of this Test aside, he rarely offers width or bowls what batsmen may call a 'hit-me' delivery. He is tireless in his ability to maintain a line on or just outside off and a good length. He may sometimes have a few things to say but nothing as hostile as his opening partner Steyn.
His success has literally been achieved through hard work and the 100th wicket will be another illustration of that. Before he gets there, Philander will concentrate on batting South Africa towards safety, which he has already set about doing. He regards himself as a genuine allrounder, and with two first-class hundreds and two Test fifties to his name, few will argue with that. This is another opportunity to show it.
Philander has batted with the maturity of a senior batsman, despite not being the specialist at the crease. He walked out with his team on 146 for 6 and needing consolidation. Faf du Plessis, who has not scored a half-century in seven Test innings, was with him.
Philander was greeted with an outswinger, one that came back in and a short ball, and negotiated all three with ease. While du Plessis spent time trying to get in, Philander kept the score moving to avoid a build up of pressure. He took risks - an expansive drive off Ishant that he inside-edged for four - and he showed off his prowess when he pulled Mohammad Shami, punched Ishant through point and flicked Zaheer Khan.
Because of Philander, du Plessis had the time to gain his confidence and South Africa remained alive in the match. Philander got the balance between caution and aggression right, treated the bowling with respect but punished it when he had the chance. "Having Faf and Vernon there has been a major help for us," Hashim Amla said. "If you think back to Lord's, Vernon batted really well and he did so here again on a wicket that has done a bit."
Against England last August, Philander had joined JP Duminy at the crease with South Africa on 163 for 6. Both batsmen scored 61 and their partnership gave South Africa a decent total. Philander's last day five-for also played a major part in South Africa winning the Test, the series and the coveted mace. "He has proven his worth as a bowler and batsman for us," Amla said.
His team-mates seemed to know little about the discomfort Philander was in today, with Amla saying he wasn't aware of the toothache. "I didn't know but he did pretty well. I don't think it's affected him too badly," he said. Philander was only due to see the dentist at the end of play today. Given the way he performed with the pain so far, Amla hinted his team-mates may not be too unhappy if he wasn't cured completely by the morning.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent