"You again," Vernon Philander said to the reporters waiting for him at the press conference before his Man of the Match award at the second Test. He was already tired of talking then. This time, it was the reporters who thought that as Philander walked into the room, having heard almost everything he has to say already.
After just six Tests, Philander is already a seasoned, wise international cricketer. He has bypassed the wobbly toddler stage, the brooding teenager and the soul-searching young adult phase. Philander has shot straight to the head of the table. The feast he has eaten while sitting there is one that will make bowlers the world over drool.
His 45 wickets from six Tests have given him a chance to become the second fastest cricketer to 50 wickets after Charlie Turner, who achieved his feat in the 1880s. He is third on the list of bowlers to have taken five five-fors in six Tests and has improved his first-class average from 20.2 before he made his Test debut to 18.9 after and he has claimed 57 more wickets in that time, which has spanned just five months. His Test average, of 13.6, is eye-popping. His extraordinary success is not as inexplicable as some would believe and is actually due to three key things: consistency, movement and strategic use of his own limitations.
The number of exceptional balls he bowls outnumbers the poor ones. Short and wide are foreign concepts to him, he also rarely over-pitches and almost never strays onto the pads. Over and over again, he bowls in the channel outside off stump with a discipline that can be compared to the one that runs the North Korean military.
"He's always in that area," Graeme Smith, his Test captain, said. "In my career, the only person who's sort of resembled that was maybe a Glenn McGrath. He was always in that area of uncertainty." Philander has earned the nickname "Vern McGrath" because of his accuracy and said the former Australian seamer is one of the bowlers he has tried to emulate. "It's probably between Glenn McGrath and Polly [Shaun Pollock]. Those are the guys that I try and idolise and the ones I base my game on," Philander said.
Combined with movement, that nagging line is what gets him wickets. Philander can get the ball to nip in back in, like the one that Kruger van Wyk left, expecting it to move the other way and was bowled, or to move away, like the one Kane Williamson poked at to get the outside edge. He can swing the new ball and reverse swing the old one.
What that does, as Ross Taylor explained, is put batsmen in multiple minds about how to play him. "When you can swing it away and reverse it in it does become tough on batsmen to find out where your off stump is," Taylor said. While he had proved himself as menacing with the new ball before this Test, he was to shown his abilities with the older ball. "I'm always going to back my skills to get guys out when the ball does reverse," Philander said.
Best of all, he is able to do all of the above without being one of the quickest bowlers in the world. Philander bowls around the 130 kph mark but that's all he needs to do to take wickets. "He's not quick," Taylor said. "But he's quick enough to hurry you up."
Whether at home, or away, those three tenets will continue to serve Philander like a trusted family recipe serves generations of cooks. He knew it before he left for New Zealand and his performance in Hamilton has confirmed it. "It's obviously satisfying knowing that the same skills that I use back home are also working abroad," Philander said.
Both captains felt the Seddon Park was flat at the start of the game, but Philander was able to get something out of the surface by continuing to hit the deck hard and refusing to veer from his lines. After three seasons of doing it the first-class competition at home, which yielded 94 wickets in total in the two seasons preceding this one, there's no reason to stop. "It's something that I obviously practised and trained for these last three years and I've enhanced those skills and got to understand my body, how my action works, so it's something that I've got used to," he said.
One minor adjustment has been length, which has become a bit shorter on the slower tracks in New Zealand, and the development of a streak of patience on less helpful tracks. "The wicket didn't play that badly," Smith said. "The key was that we were patient, at times, accurate and disciplined," three things which just about sum up Philander's approach to bowling.