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Numbers Game

Why Philander remains South Africa's go-to bowler

Despite other bowlers' ability to bowl quicker or swing the ball more, Vernon Philander has remained South Africa's most bankable bowler in Tests

S Rajesh
S Rajesh
Best bowling averages for seamers in Tests since November 2011, July 27, 2017

Among fast bowlers with 100 Test wickets since Vernon Philander's debut, only Dale Steyn has a better average than Philander's  •  ESPNcricinfo Ltd

(All numbers exclude the Oval Test between England and South Africa, except where mentioned otherwise.)
In the Lord's Test earlier this month, while the rest of the South African attack struggled against a rampant England batting line-up in the first innings, Vernon Philander was at his usual nagging best, going for just 67 in 20 overs. He took three wickets as well, including those of both the openers, and was the one South African bowler who kept control on proceedings: the others had combined figures of 7 for 389 from 85.3 overs, an economy rate of 4.55 per over, and an average of 55.57 per wicket, compared to Philander's average of 22.33, and economy of 3.35. In the second Test, when South Africa's bowlers tightened up and dominated proceedings, Philander was again the leader with match figures of 5 for 72. All his five wickets were of England batsmen in the top six.
While South African fans, and indeed fans of fast bowling, are justifiably excited about the arrival of Kagiso Rabada and the return of Morne Morkel, Philander remains the most bankable of the lot, churning in consistent performances every time he takes the field. Injuries forced him to miss seven Tests in the 2015-16 season, but since his return he has proved that he has lost nothing in terms of skill or guile, taking 43 wickets in 13 Tests at 22.58; before that break, he had taken 126 wickets in 32 Tests at 22.08.
Vernon Philander's Test career
Period Tests Wickets Average Econ rate Str rate
 Till Dec 2015  32  126  22.08  2.75  48.1
 Jan 2016 onwards  13  43  22.58  2.65  51.0
In the period since his debut, Philander has averaged 22.21 for his 169 wickets. Among the 12 quick bowlers who have taken 100-plus wickets during this period, only Dale Steyn has a better average (21.10). Philander's economy rate of 2.72 is second too, after James Anderson's 2.69.
With Philander, though, it isn't just the number of wickets he has taken; it is also the quality of batsmen he has dismissed. Against batsmen who have batted in the top six, Philander averages 25.56, with 110 dismissals. Among the 28 bowlers who have taken 50 or more top-six wickets in the period since Philander's debut, only one bowler has a better average against the top six: Steyn, who averages 25.29 against them.
Among the bowlers he has done better than, there's Anderson, Stuart Broad and R Ashwin, all of whom average around 30 against the top order. Also, 110 of his 169 wickets have been of top-order batsmen, which is a fairly healthy percentage of 65.09.
Best averages v top 6 batsmen in Tests (Min 50 wkts, since Nov 9, 2011)
Bowler Wickets Average
 Dale Steyn  111  25.29
 Vernon Philander  110  25.56
 Kagiso Rabada  50  25.76
 James Pattinson  54  25.93
 Ravindra Jadeja  85  27.64
 Ryan Harris  53  28.25
 Josh Hazlewood  72  29.36
 Stuart Broad  156  30.07
 James Anderson  157  30.33
 Ravichandran Ashwin  167  30.34
And his consistency extends to his numbers against right- and left-hand batsmen as well. An average of 21.02 against right-handers, and 22.74 against the lefties, with similar economy rates against them, shows he is equally at home against them both.
The batsmen who have struggled against Philander include England's current openers, Alastair Cook and Keaton Jennings, Martin Guptill, Kane Williamson, Azhar Ali, Shikhar Dhawan, Angelo Mathews, Dinesh Chandimal and Ian Bell. Apart from being dismissed fairly frequently by him, most of them have also struggled to score quickly against Philander.
England's current opening pair has had a particularly rough time. Cook has fallen to him five times at an average of 12.40 (before the Oval Test), while Jennings fell to Philander for a third time in 23 balls on the first day at The Oval; he has scored just two runs in those 23 balls, for an average of 0.66 and a run rate of 0.52 per over. There are a fair number of left-hand openers who have found Philander difficult to handle, but David Warner isn't one of them: though he has been dismissed three times, Warner has scored 176 runs from 278 balls, and averages 58.66 against him.
Batsmen who have struggled v Philander in Tests
Batsman Runs Balls Outs Ave
 AN Cook  62  157  5  12.40
 LD Chandimal  33  67  4  8.25
 MJ Guptill  46  99  4  11.50
 SE Marsh  39  123  4  9.75
 KS Williamson  119  311  4  29.75
 Asad Shafiq  70  183  3  23.33
 AD Mathews  48  182  3  16.00
 Azhar Ali  46  164  3  15.33
 S Dhawan  31  62  3  10.33
 PJ Hughes  29  58  3  9.66
 IR Bell  17  86  2  8.50
Among the batsmen who have handled him better, there's Steven Smith, Virat Kohli, Cheteshwar Pujara, Misbah-ul-Haq, and New Zealand's opener Jeet Raval: all of them have played 100-plus deliveries from Philander without being dismissed once. Joe Root hasn't done badly either, and his dismissal at The Oval was the first time Philander has got him out. Before this Test, Root had scored 41 runs off 55 balls without a dismissal. However, even against the batsmen mentioned in the table below, Philander has maintained excellent economy rates, going at less than three an over against most of them.
Batsmen who have faced 100+ balls from Philander in Tests without being dismissed
Batsman Runs Balls Outs
 SPD Smith  116  172  0
 CA Pujara  53  172  0
 JA Raval  66  171  0
 IJL Trott  46  142  0
 Misbah-ul-Haq  59  131  0
 V Kohli  53  118  0
 EJM Cowan  41  114  0
 WU Tharanga  62  106  0
Philander's record in Asia is the one aspect that isn't top-class, but even there he offers the team excellent control, enabling other bowlers to hunt for wickets. In seven Tests in Asia, he has taken only 13 wickets, but his economy rate is 2.42 and his average 32, which most seamers would happily take in Asia. In most other conditions, though, Philander is easily one of the most potent bowlers going around today.

S Rajesh is stats editor of ESPNcricinfo. @rajeshstats