The piece was updated after the fourth Test of the England-South Africa series, which ended on January 27.
There are few bowlers, if any, who have exploited seam-bowling conditions more effectively than Vernon Philander. His ability to pitch it on a coin ball after ball, coupled with the skill to move it both ways, meant there was no respite for batsmen: both edges of the bat were under threat with the ball seaming in or out, and the lengths he bowled coupled with a relatively low-arm action meant that lbw and bowled were also regular dismissal options for him.
Philander's overall Test numbers are a testament to his skills: an average of 22.32, at an economy rate of 2.63. Among bowlers with at least 150 wickets since Philander made his Test debut in November 2011, no bowler has a better average, and only one fast bowler, James Anderson, has a better economy rate. Five bowlers had better strike rates - Kagiso Rabada, Dale Steyn, Mitchell Starc, Mohammed Shami and Kemar Roach - but then Philander's forte was his relentlessness, not the ability to blast batsmen out.
Even in the all-time list of bowlers with 200-plus Test wickets, Philander is right up there: among the 76 bowlers in this list, Philander is ranked eighth in terms of average. In fact, the average of 22.32 and the economy rate of 2.63 are very nearly identical to the numbers for Richard Hadlee, another bowler who operated in much the same way as Philander.
Among South African bowlers, Philander ranks seventh in terms of wickets, but only one among those six bowlers with more wickets has a better average: Allan Donald, whose 330 wickets cost him 22.25 each.
Lethal in home conditions
While his overall numbers are amazing, what stands out even more are his stats at home: in 36 Tests in South Africa, Philander has taken 146 wickets at an average of 19.08. Among the 84 bowlers who have taken at least 100 Test wickets at home, only one has a better average, and he played in the era of uncovered pitches: England's Jim Laker averaged 18.08 for his 135 wickets in 29 home Tests. Philander's strike rate of 43.8 is in the top five too, after those of Rabada (34), Waqar Younis (38.7), Dale Steyn (40.2) and Malcolm Marshall (42.6).
The away average of 28.37 pales when compared to his stats at home, but there were a couple of other countries where he also had plenty of success. In six Tests in England, he averaged 23.54, while his average in as many Tests in New Zealand was 22.95. (In New Zealand, it was a story of two halves: in his first series there, in 2012, he took 21 wickets at 15.47; in his second series there five years later, he managed only two wickets at 101.50.)
Where Philander's effectiveness reduced, though, were in conditions which weren't conducive to seam bowling. In the Tests that he didn't play in the three countries mentioned above (South Africa, England or New Zealand), Philander took only 33 wickets from 16 Tests at an average of 35.36; in 10 Tests in Asia his average went up to 38.06, with only 16 wickets in those matches. Even in those conditions, though, what he did offer the team was immaculate control: his economy rate in those 16 Tests was 2.64, and in the 10 Tests in Asia he went at only 2.5 runs per over.
Philander's biggest skill was his outstanding control and mastery with the new ball. It's as if he had the ball on a string, with which he probed the batsman's technique relentlessly: the line was always around off stump, the length had them confused whether to play forward or back, and the seam movement either way kept them uncertain and guessing.
For top-order batsmen, Philander was a nightmare. Of his 224 wickets, 68 are of openers; the percentage of 30.36 is third-highest among the 76 bowlers who have taken 200-plus wickets. Only Zaheer Khan (31.2) and Chaminda Vaas (31) have a higher percentage of openers' wickets in their overall tally. Include No. 3s into the equation, and Philander's wicket percentage goes up to 41% (92 out of 224), fifth in this list after Zaheer (45%), Vaas (42), Graham McKenzie (41.5), and Bob Willis (41.2).
Philander's mastery with new ball also meant plenty of early wickets, and plenty of top-order batsmen falling to him early in their innings. Sixty-two of Philander's 224 wickets came in the first 10 overs of the opposition innings - the percentage of 27.7 is the highest among all bowlers who have taken at least 200 wickets since the beginning of 2002. And in the first 10 overs, he averages 19.77, which is again the best among the 26 bowlers who have bowled at least 300 overs during this period.
All these early wickets also means he gets plenty of top-order batsmen out before they reach double digits: on 55 occasions he has dismissed the top three batsmen (Nos. 1-3) for single-digit scores, which is very nearly a quarter of his total wickets. That percentage is easily the highest among all bowlers who have 200-plus wickets. Overall, Philander's average against Nos. 1 to 3 in Tests is 24.78; among the 51 bowlers who have taken 50 such wickets since the start of 2002, only two - Pat Cummins and Glenn McGrath - have a better average against the top three. (Since these numbers are from 2002, it only includes the last 44 Tests of McGrath's 124-Test career; in these 44 Tests, he took 190 wickets at 21.15.)
All of this is not to say that Philander hasn't been effective in the later part of the innings; after 10 overs, he still averaged an excellent 23.29 at a strike rate of 51. However, he bowls only about 17% of the team's overs after the 10th, which is about 10 percent lower than the contributions of Dale Steyn and Shaun Pollock. Clearly, the aspect of Philander's bowling that South Africa will miss the most is his excellence with the new ball. Kagiso Rabada, the next leader of the South African attack, averages only 31 in the first 10 overs of an innings, and 32 against the top three batsmen of the opposition line-up. South Africa need more from their lead bowler.
With his new-ball numbers so good, it's hardly surprising that the players Philander dismissed most often were also top-order batsmen. Alastair Cook was one of three batsmen who was dismissed by Philander five times; all three averaged less than 20 against him. The other batsmen who struggled against him include Azhar Ali, Dinesh Chandimal, Martin Guptill and Dimuth Karunaratne, while Kane Williamson also averaged less than 30 against him. David Warner fell to Philander four times, but scored plenty of runs against him too.
The two batsmen who have complete bragging rights against Philander are also the two best batsmen going around today: Virat Kohli scored 141 runs against him and was dismissed only once, while Steven Smith is the only batsman to score 100-plus runs off him without being dismissed.
For the other mortals, though, Philander was most often more than a handful.
With inputs from Shiva Jayaraman.