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Vernon Philander's rise since his Test debut has been astonishing. His captain, though, feels an extra yard of pace will improve his old-ball spells
Firdose Moonda at Newlands
February 18, 2013
There is a certain look of disbelief that passes over a Captonian's face if they are told something in their city could improve. Who can blame them? The jewel of Africa seems perfectly polished in every way with a sea as azure as the skies above it and plenty to suit all tastes.
The same incredulity was felt by those in the presence of Graeme Smith when he mentioned after the Newlands Test he believes Vernon Philander could get better. Philander was not named Man of the Match despite his nine wickets because Robin Peterson's 84 was the real difference between the two sides but it would have been a tough decision given Philander's feat.
He claimed his ninth five-wicket haul in just his 15th Test. It was also his fourth at Newlands and took his total tally of Test wickets to 87. His wickets per Test sit at 5.8 (his new-ball partner Dale Steyn's are at 5.1) and his average remains a staggering 16.81, statistically making him the most dangerous bowler on the international circuit. Of all current cricketers, Philander has the lowest average by some distance. Steyn is next with an average of 22.68.
If Philander gets any better, batsmen will stand even less of a chance than they do against South Africa now and Smith warned that is possible he will. "Vernon will be the first to admit that he is still a work in progress," Smith said. "He would like to see his pace up. His skill factor is at a very high level and his seam action is unmatched. He is like the seam version of Saeed Ajmal. But if he can pick up a little bit of pace, his old ball spells will get better. His new ball spells are already so effective and if he can get the old ones to the same level…"
When Philander broke onto the scene in 2007 the main concern was that he as too much of a trundler to cut it. He rarely goes beyond 135 kph although he is a major threat despite that. Philander's danger is in the subtlety. Like Ajmal, batsmen are unsure what the ball is going to do when it comes out of the hand.
Philander's secret is not prodigious swing as he only moves the ball a few centimetres but because he can do it both ways, it creates uncertainty. Most of his wickets result from edges because batsmen are not sure whether to go forward or back to him and they are often found out on the drive.
With the new ball, his seam movement is more pronounced as expected and there were some concerns during this series that South Africa lacked the ability to attack with the old ball. Philander proved that wrong with his second-innings burst that was aided by poor shot selection from the Pakistan middle order. Philander showed he can still make the ball talk later in the match.
"We knew an old ball spell could win us the Test match", Smith said. "When we are able to control the run-rate and then frustrate them, we thought if we could make the old ball work for us, we'd be able to get close to dismissing them and having a chaseable target."
Creating something even where conditions don't suit is what has always been seen as Philander's challenge. So far, he has been able to succeed at home, in England, New Zealand and Australia but the subcontinent remains his biggest test. South Africa's next Test series will be played in such conditions in the United Arab Emirates against Pakistan and it's there that Philander could claim his 100th scalp, unless he manages 13 wickets at Centurion starting Friday.
It also means that Philander will probably not become the fastest to 100 Test wickets because George Lohmann holds the record, having achieved it in 16 matches. SuperSport Park will be Philander's 16th. He is, however, in line to become the fastest South African to the mark.
Had injuries not kept him out of three matches he could have played in, Philander may have had his 100 haul already. Those niggles are another source of concern. Three Tests after making his first appearance, Philander picked up a knee problem that ruled him out of the 2011 Boxing Day Test against Sri Lanka. Marchant de Lange replaced him and became the year's most successful debutant with 7 for 81 but has since had stress fractures that kept him out of action for most of the season.
In November 2012 in Australia, Philander woke up with back spasms on the morning of the Adelaide Test and Rory Kleinveldt replaced him at the 11th hour. It allowed Kleinveldt, who opens the bowling with Philander for their franchise, the Cobras, to redeem himself from a poor first outing in Brisbane and to show his own skills. Kleinveldt also stood in for Philander in Port Elizabeth against New Zealand in January when a hamstring injury ruled Philander out.
Although Philander has recovered from the hamstring problem, it has been described by the team manager Mohammed Moosajee, who is also a medical doctor, as chronic. Philander will not be managed in the same Jacques Kallis is - where his quota of overs in monitored - but his participation domestically is looked at as one way of keeping a handle on the problem. Given Philander's value to the national team, it is not a problem anyone will complain about too much.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondentFeeds: Firdose Moonda
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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Plays of the Day from second ODI between South Africa and Pakistan, in Port Elizabeth