4-3-2-1

No, that's not a countdown. It's Vernon Philander's bowling analysis after his opening spell at The Oval on Thursday.

The first nine balls were all bowled to Keaton Jennings. In the corridor, shaping away late, past the edge, testing how sure Jennings was of his own technique. Not very, was the answer when he inside-edged onto his pads, not very at all, when he felt nervously for one that angled across him. Jennings did not have to endure much more because the next one took the edge and found Dean Elgar at third slip. Philander's early work was done.

Earning South Africa the early breakthrough has been a Philander staple in this series. Alastair Cook at Lord's, Alastair Cook at Trent Bridge and South Africa would've liked it to be Alastair Cook again at the Oval. And they'd have had reason to. Cook is the batsman Philander has removed most - five times in six matches - so Jennings, though he has hardly troubled them in the series, would have to do. And Philander would have more chances at Cook, 12 more in this spell.

He tried the familiar trick of taking the ball across Cook and then moving it away but Cook has become wise to this approach and his judgement was sound. He left the ball particularly well, something batsmen have not been able to do against Philander so far. Statistics from the broadcaster said 70% of Philander's deliveries in this series have forced batsmen to play which makes sense considering that nine out of every 10 balls he bowls is either on the stumps or outside off. That's how much he has demanded of them.

South Africa could not demand any more from Philander upfront though. That Philander's workload needs to be managed has been evident since he made his comeback from torn ankle ligaments in August last year, but on this occasion he was also laid low with a stomach bug.

Philander's stomach problems began before play but South Africa did not have the option of leaving him off the team sheet. Given the role he plays with the ball, his promotion to No.7 in the line-up and the reserve options in South Africa's squad - specialist batsmen Theunis de Bruyn and Aiden Markram and uncapped young allrounder Andile Phehlukwayo - they could not replace Philander so when they were instructed to field, they hoped for the best and the best was four overs, initially.

Though Philander did not leave the field immediately, he spent parts of the morning session off and by the time he returned, Morris had broken the second-wicket stand and Morne Morkel was mid-way through a spell that threatened to bring reward at any moment. So it was not until drinks in the second session that Philander was called on again. The ball was 36 overs old and he did this with it...

5-2-6-1

The one was the scalp of Joe Root, the man South Africa know they have to get early. After four full deliveries to Root in his first over of this spell, Philander held the length back a touch and moved the ball off the seam and took the outside edge. Quinton de Kock had to go at it full-stretch and one-handed, something he had been practicing in training with assistant coach Adrian Birrell late on Wednesday, and he caught it. Again, Philander made a breakthrough soon after being given the ball and with this one, the biggest breakthrough there was.

South Africa had made their way into England's middle order, where a second debutant hoped to make a name and the visiting attack refused to let him. Philander gave Dawid Malan two sighters, then made him play at the next two. A rain interruption let Philander rest for a few minutes and then he was able to have another go at Cook and again gave a stern test.

A delivery that straightened and struck Cook high on the pad drew an appeal, a wider one baited Cook into going fishing but the ball fell before it reached backward point. At the other end Kagiso Rabada ramped up the speed and made use of the bounce to get Malan hopping. In tandem, Philander and Rabada created the pressure Faf du Plessis had spoken about pre-match, the pressure that makes the opposition question themselves.

Cook earned what could yet be a temporary victory over Philander, who he managed to get away for the boundary that brought up his fifty but Malan could claim nothing similar. Rabada let him have a single and then produced a perfect inswinging yorker that knocked Malan off his feet and his middle stump out of the ground. The crowd was in awe of that delivery; Rabada felt the same way about Philander, perhaps not at the that moment but later in the day when he returned for what would be the final burst.

3-0-9-0

It does not look nearly as impressive as the first two sets of numbers but it was good enough to beat Ben Stokes four times, three in his last over. Stokes had no idea what to do with his feet or his hands as Philander curled the ball away from him. Rabada, who has some history with Stokes after issuing him with a send-off at Lord's that resulted in Rabada being banned from Trent Bridge, wished it was him making Stokes look so silly. "I was watching from midwicket in the last session and I thought he bowled so well. Going off the field, I asked him for a few pointers. He is a really skillful bowler, especially in these conditions. He makes it look really simple," Rabada said.

What Philander offers the South African attack is actually something quite complicated, which is why team management continue to label him the bowler they will miss the most if he is unavailable. It's also why they wanted him to play at Lord's, even though he was coming off a different ankle injury and why they wanted him to play today, even though he was unwell. Philander managed to get a few morsels down towards the end of the day, though he was not sure how long it would stay there. South Africa will hope its long enough to give him the energy to go again in the morning.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent