Philander back with a bang

2011-11-26 00:00

THE recent tour of Australia has revived interest in Test cricket, mainly because of gritty performances by the least likely candidates for both sides. But the name on the cricket fans’ lips at the moment is that of Vernon Philander.

Since Sean Pollock retired from Test cricket the South African bowling attack has been lacking balance without a third pace bowler to back up Dale Steyn and Morné Morkel. National selectors have turned to no fewer than three possible candidates in three years, all of whom were unimpressive.

Meanwhile, Philander, a forgotten man of South African cricket, was returning to his best form in all versions of the game, particularly in the longer verison. In the past two seasons he has ended the SuperSport Series as the tournament’s top wicket taker with a miserly average.

Because of this he was given his chance to shine at Newlands where he played in his debut Test against the touring Australians. He bowled impressively in the first innings, pitching the ball on a good length at a pace that troubled the batsmen. He took 3/63, with former Australian captain Ricky Ponting predicting that he will take a lot of wickets in his career.

He didn’t have to wait long to realise this for himself. In a remarkable second day of the Test, South Africa bowled Australia out for 47, with Philander stealing the show with 5/15.

This was one of the best performances by a South African player on debut, but Philander told Weekend Witness that there was a risk of the occasion getting to him.

“There were so many emotions going through me at the time. I really had to calm myself down and concentrate on taking another wicket. I must say, the goosebumps I got during that second innings was an awesome feeling. I was tempted to pinch myself to see if it was real on a number of occasions,” said Philander.

He was a major contributor to South Africa’s winning that Test and was labelled a key player in the Proteas’ ambitions to win their first home series against Australia in almost 30 years.

At the Wanderers, on a hard pitch that favoured the batsmen, Philander only took 1/47 in the first innings, but improved in the second innings to take 5/70. It was this performance which secured him the Man of the Series award.

“I knew I would do well in Test cricket, but I didn’t expect to finish the series as the top wicket taker and the man of the series. It’s a bit surreal,” he said.

Philander was brought up in Belville in the Western Cape, and cricket always played a significant role in his life. From an early age street cricket would be a way to keep youths busy and away from criminal elements, which is an unfortunate fact of life among youths in the area.

“I have fond memories of my youth in Belville. On Sundays, when the streets were quiet, all of the parents would sit outside and cheer us on. So it feels like I have been playing cricket in front of big crowds from the time I was six or seven. I always used to sit in the back of the class and look out of the window, thinking that one day I will play for South Africa at Newlands,” said Philader.

He added that the close-knit community always did its best to support young men like him and it was this support that helped him through his roller-coaster journey as a cricketer.

He represented South Africa at U19 level in 2003 and was one of leading wicket takers in the world at that level. He performed well in all formats and was eventually drafted into the Proteas limited-overs side where he took four wickets on debut against Ireland in 2007. From there he went on to be a regular player in both ODI and Twenty20 cricket.

He struggled for form and picked up significant weight in 2008 and was dropped from the Proteas squad because of the rise of Wayne Parnell and Lonwabo Tsotsobe. Determined to make a comeback, he went back to Belville and worked hard to lose his excess weight and remodelled his action.

“If it wasn’t for the support of my family and the community, I would never have had the confidence and heart to achieve what I did,” he said.

Cobras coach Richard Pybus encouraged Philander by telling him to keep on taking wickets.

Now that he is in the Test team, Philander said his task is yo establish himself as a mainstay of South African cricket.

“I am hoping to have a good series against Sri Lanka. They don’t like pace bowling, especially on wickets with a lot of juice in them like the South African wickets have.

“Maybe now I can use my short ball, which I couldn’t use against Australia. I’m looking forward to it,” he said.

He has noted that his performances have garnered a lot of media attention and public interest, which are welcome but need to be managed.

“Sometimes I just need to zone out. Music is a big help in this regard. I’m a big fan of rap and R&B music. It gets me pumped up and ready to take on the world,” he said.

Philander said he also likes to watch light-hearted comedy movies to take his mind off things.

With Parnell, Tsotsobe and Ryan McLaren all eager to make comebacks in the Test team, Philander has a fight on his hands to establish himself as a regular in the Proteas set-up. But with performances like those that he put in against Australia, one fancies that contenders will have their hands full trying to take his position away from him.

• jonathan.faurie@witness.co.za

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