South Africa v Sri Lanka, 1st Test, Centurion, 1st day December 15, 2011

Philander leads the pack

There is a secret to bowling on a pitch that glistens with green and Vernon Philander knows what it is. After taking 5 for 53 on the first day against Sri Lanka, his word can probably be trusted.

"You have to bowl as you would on a flat wicket," Philander said. "Sometimes when you see a green top, you think you have to bowl a bouncer, yorker, or a good length ball. But the assistance is already there so you don't have to look for anything else."

Of all the South African bowlers, Philander was the one who best displayed the characteristic that Graeme Smith said he would ask his bowlers to focus on in this series: control. While Dale Steyn was used in short bursts, Morne Morkel was troubled by inconsistency; which left Philander to become Smith's go-to man when things threatened to get beyond South Africa's control.

That only happened twice in Sri Lanka's brief innings, first when Tharanga Paranavitana and Mahela Jayawardene formed a half-century stand for the third wicket and then when Thilan Samaraweera and Angelo Matthews weighed in with a fifth-wicket partnership of 65. Both times, Philander intervened.

He bowled Paranavitana with a ball that was just too good for the opener and snuck between bat and pad and he had Samaraweera dismissed on review, after being certain he was caught behind. Philander said his close relationship with the DRS, which also bagged him the wicket of Kaushal Silva, was driven by "gut instinct" but admitted that there was a little bit of luck that went into it.

There was no luck involved in his first scalp, that of Kumar Sangakkara who was in two minds about whether to play or leave a delivery which took off from an awkward length. It was that variation in length that Philander relied on, whether bowling to the world's top-ranked Test batsmen or one who has only played in two Tests to date. "I play the player, not the name," Philander said. "Even if it's the No. 10, I will use the same disciplines."

He said South Africa were satisfied with their work in the field, having identified "anything under-200 as a par score to bowl them out on," and were also pleased with their ability to finish the Sri Lankans off after getting them on the ropes. "We always knew if we can get No. 7 or 8 in there, we would be in with chance of getting them out cheaply," he said. "When Nos. 8, 9, 10, 11 walk in they should know that the seamers are coming their way."

The pace-friendly surface was not as menacing as it looked and although the pitch did have something in it for the bowlers, Sri Lanka's batsmen made it look a lot worse than what it was. Philander said only Jayawardene showed the temperament required to play on it while the rest of line-up read the situation incorrectly.

"The way [Mahela] approached his innings, they were no signs of fearing the short ball," Philander said. "A lot of the subcontinent teams come here and see a green top and think they are going to be bounced on later on, so they may as well play a few shots."

He admitted that the South African bowlers could sense the dread in their opponents even before they went out to play. "At the toss some of their guys were looking at the coin to see which way it fell. Subcontinent teams fear a green top."

The only bowler who did not have a profitable outing was Morkel, but Philander brushed it off as just another day at the office. "That's what happens in cricket," he said. "Sometimes, one bowler will often have an off day and the rest of us try and make up for it." Philander made up for it double.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent