In this book extract from Ali Bacher and David Williams’ new book on South Africa’s greatest bowlers, the pair describe how Vernon Philander’s cricket career got off to a magical start that would put him on the road to becoming a bowling legend, especially in Cape Town.
Philander retired from cricket this week after almost decade of Test cricket.
Vernon Philander had a better start in Test cricket than any of the great South African bowlers who came before him.
He made his debut in 2011 against what was then one of the toughest sides in the world, Australia. Billed officially as a series, it consisted of just two Tests – but he took 14 wickets at an average of 13.92.
In the first Test in Cape Town he was described as “almost unplayable”, and he needed to be.
In the first innings, where he took three wickets, Australia made 284 and South Africa could manage only 96 in reply.
Australia came to the wicket for a second time effectively starting their innings at 188 without loss and, with more than three days in hand, expecting to build a massive total that would put the match beyond South Africa.
Instead they were shot out for 47, and an amazing 23 wickets had fallen on the second day.
It was only the third time in Test history that one day of play had involved all four innings.
Inevitably, questions were asked about the wicket. But, as Telford Vice wrote in his match report in Wisden, “none of this could be blamed on the groundsman”.
That it was only the third Test ever to be played at Newlands in November offered a better explanation. The others, against Australia in 1902–03 and 1921–22, were also over in three days.
Reports of those matches make no mention of the weather, but Cape Town is known for its significant November rainfall, which raises the water table and makes for “lively pitches.”
Vice noted that while there was bounce and swing, “the surface prepared for this match was far from unplayable” and had not prevented Aussie captain Michael Clarke from scoring a brilliant century (“of ripping aggression and unusual quality”) in the first innings – 151 in 176 balls.
The Australian second innings almost went into the record books for the lowest Test total by any side in history.
The record is 26, and at one stage they were 21 for nine.
Philander was the star in taking five for 15 in seven overs, to give him eight in the match for 78 runs. “He showed the importance of first-class experience and took to his role like an old hand,” wrote Firdose Moonda.
“He bowled with exceptional control, made use of seam movement and exploited everything he could from the pitch.”
In the second Test at the Wanderers, Australia struck back to win narrowly by two wickets, but Philander could not be blamed, as he took five for 70 in the second innings, in which Australia reached the 310 they needed to square the series.
There followed another two Tests for him against Sri Lanka, where he did even better, taking 16 wickets for 202 runs – at 12.62 apiece.
In the first Test, at Centurion, South Africa won by an innings and 81 runs by tea on the third day. Philander again led the attack with five for 53 and five for 49 – ten for 102 in the match.
That gave him four “five-fors” in six Test innings, and made him only the fourth player in history to record four or more “five-fors” in his first three Tests.
He missed the second Test in Durban with a knee injury sustained in training, but returned at Cape Town to break a dangerous 142-run partnership between Thilan Samaraweera and Angelo Mathews, and took three wickets in each innings.
In her review of the series against Sri Lanka, Moonda noted that Philander “bowled a questioning length throughout and had the Sri Lankan batsmen constantly confused about whether to go forward or back to him. He operated as an out-and-out strike bowler, and had the ability to apply the stranglehold on run-scoring and thereby became Graeme Smith’s go-to man. After just four Tests, he is already the spearhead of the South African attack.”
With 30 wickets in his first four Tests, next on the fixture list was a three-match tour to New Zealand in early 2012.
Here the highlight for Philander came in the second Test, where he took ten for 114.
He destroyed the lower order in taking six for 44 in the second innings.
That was his fifth five-for in six Tests, for a Test average at that stage of 13.60.
Of course there was no shortage of commentary on why he had been so effective.
The key point seemed to be that the batsmen were uncertain about how to play him, because of a combination of accuracy in line and length and metronomic discipline.
Captain Graeme Smith commented that “he’s always in that area. 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 said it was his ambition to be known for his accuracy, and McGrath was one of the bowlers he tried to emulate.
“It’s probably between McGrath and Polly [Shaun Pollock]. Those are the guys that I try and idolise, the ones I base my game on.”
In addition, it was noted that Philander could swing the new ball and reverse-swing the old ball.
New Zealand’s Ross Taylor said that “when you can swing it away and reverse it in as Philander can, it does become tough on the batsman to find out where the off-stump is”.
Both swing and accuracy can be diminished by bowling at very high speeds, and it is significant that Philander bowls at around 130 kilometres per hour – “he’s not quick,” said Taylor, “but he’s quick enough to hurry you up”.
Philander is a great believer in achieving fitness through actually bowling, rather than running or doing gym work.
Another possible factor in his success was his relatively long apprenticeship in first-class cricket before he was picked for South Africa.
Philander grew up in the tough community of Ravensmead in the northern suburbs of Cape Town, an area full of gangsters and drug crime.
He played all the sports available to him at primary school and high school, and it was only in matric that he began to focus on cricket.
Leading Western Province coach Alfonso Thomas remembers Philander well.
Philander played at the PG Bison Under-15 Week, and attended the national schools Coca-Cola Week three times, representing SA Schools in his final season, in a team that also included AB de Villiers, Faf du Plessis and JP Duminy.
In March of his matric year, while on holiday, he received a call from Western Province coach Peter Kirsten to play in the four-day first-class final against KwaZulu-Natal. He took two for 18 in the WP victory.
Philander played his first ODI for South Africa against Ireland in 2007, on the day he turned 22. After South Africa made 173 for four in a rain-shortened innings, Ireland were bowled out for 131 runs, mainly thanks to Philander’s four for 12 in 5.5 overs, the best bowling figures in an attack that included Makhaya Ntini and Jacques Kallis.
In his next six ODIs – against India, Zimbabwe and England – he was less successful, taking only two wickets. Then his international career seemed to stall.
In the four years that followed, he improved his craft while playing for Western Province. Throughout that period he was at the top of the national first-class averages, but was kept out of the national side by André Nel, Dale Steyn and Pollock. He finally made his Test debut against Australia, at the age of 26, with devastating results.
In the two seasons before his Test selection, Philander had taken 94 wickets and he was entirely confident with his technique.
“It’s something that I obviously practised and trained for the last three years,” he said after his Test debut, “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.”
His stock ball would deviate, going away from the batsman off the seam. Bacher points out that Philander is a seam rather than a swing bowler. Philander told the Sydney Morning Herald that “all surfaces are conducive to me. I rely on good line and length on the fourth stump and so I can nip it away or nip it back. That comes into play on most wickets all over the world.”
Philander reached the milestone of 50 Test wickets in only seven matches, the second fastest in Test history, and a feat equalled or bettered only by two bowlers who played in the 19th century.
After seven years in the national side, with some interruption for injury, he has taken 216 wickets in 60 Tests, at the exceptionally good average of 22.16 – the 11th best among all bowlers with 100 wickets.
Although he could not keep up his phenomenal early rate of economy and wicket-taking, Philander was always capable of delivering a match-winning performance. In 2013 against Pakistan in Cape Town, for instance, he took nine for 99 in the match, with five for 59 and four for 40.
Newlands must certainly rank as the ground where he has been most effective. Apart from two Tests where he was injured and went for a lot of runs, in seven Tests there he took 48 wickets for 553 runs at an average of 11.52.
Outstanding performances in Cape Town include seven for 75 against Sri Lanka in 2017; and nine for 75 against India in 2018, in a match won by the Proteas by 72 runs. He says he responds to Newlands because of its aura and history, and he enjoys how passionate the crowd are in supporting South Africa.
His favourite ground outside South Africa is Lord’s, where in 2012 he took five for 30 in the England first innings.
There were lean periods for Philander. By the time South Africa hosted Australia in early 2014, their opponents believed they had got the measure of him. David Warner, always an aggressive talker, admitted to the Sydney Morning Herald that he would not underplay the threat of Philander when conditions were conducive to sideways movement, but claimed the previous series against Australia “proved he could be tamed”.
He also goaded Philander for his withdrawal from the second Test at the Adelaide Oval two seasons before, in which Australia made 550 in its first innings and the Proteas barely escaped with a draw.
“I would have liked to see him bowl at Adelaide in that second Test when he apparently hurt his back – and was bowling in the nets three days later.”
In the event, Warner’s words were backed by his deeds: he made three centuries and two fifties in six innings as Australia won the series 2-1. And the Aussies did indeed seem to have got the measure of Philander: in the three Tests, he took only seven wickets for 362 runs, at a cost of more than 51.
At the end of 2016, South Africa visited Australia looking for their third successive series win in that country.
The Australians were soundly beaten by 177 runs in the first Test in Perth, despite the Proteas being without De Villiers because of injury and without any contribution of substance from Hashim Amla.
South Africa posted a modest 242 in their first innings, which was then matched by Australia with 244, with Philander taking four for 56 and Kagiso Rabada taking two for 78. That summary masks the fact that Steyn broke down in the Aussie first innings, after conceding more than four runs an over in his 12 overs, and could not bowl for the rest of the game.
When Steyn walked off the field with a damaged shoulder, just before lunch on day two, Australia were on 166 for one and South Africa were reduced to only three bowlers. Yet they took the remaining nine wickets for just 78 runs.
It was in the second innings that South Africa set the tone of dominance for the series, making 540 for eight declared, with Philander contributing a fine 73. At one stage, South Africa had been 352 for six. Philander followed that with one for 55 in the Australian second innings, and Rabada took five for 92. That ensured Australia never got close to their target of 539.
It was the first time since 1988 that Australia had lost the opening Test of a home season. And this time, it was Philander who had the measure of the Australians.
In the first over of the second Test in Hobart, Warner slashed at a wide ball from Philander and was caught behind.
Australia were shot out for just 85, with Philander taking five for 21 and Kyle Abbott three for 41. It was Australia’s lowest total at home since their 76 against the West Indies in 1984. South Africa scored 326 (including another century by Quinton de Kock), to which Australia could only reply with 161, thanks to Abbott’s six for 77 and Rabada’s four for 34. South Africa had won by an innings and 80 runs just before lunch on day four – and a whole day had been lost to rain.
Though Australia won the third Test in Adelaide, South Africa took the series 2-1.
In a three-Test series against Sri Lanka in December 2016 and January 2017, Philander took 17 wickets, including five for 45 in the first Test in Port Elizabeth and four for 27 in the second Test in Cape Town.
Later that year in the Test series in England, Philander turned in a strong all-round performance in the second Test, which was won by South Africa by 340 runs. He made 54 and 42 with the bat, and took two for 48 and three for 24. England were all out for 133 in their second innings, needing 474 to win.
England had won the first Test and they struck back to win the third. Significantly, Philander failed to exert influence as he had in the second Test. He took two for 86 in the match, and went out first ball in one innings.
However, he spent the second night of the match in hospital on a drip. Having spent a lot of time off the pitch, he was not allowed to bowl for much of the game when he returned.
“I’m obviously quite an important part of the line-up,” he said.
“Bowling at 70 or 80 per cent, I could feel that my intensity was missed. If you can’t go at 100 per cent and the conditions are suited for you as well, it’s not good … it was really frustrating that I couldn’t be out there and bowl longer spells.”
He missed the fourth Test, won by England by 177 runs as they took the series 3-1.
The England series was disappointing for South Africa and for Philander personally, but his powers were not in permanent decline.
In the 2018 home series against Australia, he took wickets consistently and economically. After losing the first Test by 118 runs, South Africa won the next three with ever-increasing dominance – the margins of victory were six wickets, 322 runs and 492 runs.
The series seemed evenly poised going into the third Test in Cape Town. But this was the match that became entirely overshadowed by a ball-tampering scandal, in which the Australians were seen to be using sandpaper to rough up the ball.
Players were suspended, the incident rocked Australian cricket, and South Africa’s crushing 322-run victory seemed almost incidental – as did Philander’s fine 52 with the bat, and Rabada’s five for 122 in the match.
By the fifth day of the fourth Test, Australia were in a state of demoralised disarray, chasing an impossible target of 612 to win. Philander took a wicket with his opening ball and then another in the same over; later he took three wickets in four balls. He finished the innings with six for 21 and nine for 51 in the match. This helped South Africa to a record-breaking 492-run victory and 3-1 series win – the first at home against Australia since 1970.
A relative late starter, Philander has taken more than 200 Test wickets at an excellent average, but he is now 34. When one considers the bowling longevity of a McGrath and a Steyn, reaching such an age does not necessarily herald retirement. But in early 2019, Philander seemed to be regarded as a holding bowler, especially on the subcontinent.
Given his legendary accuracy, it seems surprising that Philander has played only 30 ODIs in 11 years. His total of 41 wickets seems moderate, but his average at 24.04 is excellent for the limited-overs format, with a reasonable economy rate of 4.62 (both better than Rabada’s). He made his ODI debut in 2007, four years before he played Test cricket, but played only seven games for a return of six wickets. His next ODI was in 2012, prompted by his spectacular Test performances.
He was not part of South Africa’s ODI squads after 2015, and apparently was told that this would allow him to extend his Test career. Though told by national coach Ottis Gibson that he was in contention for the 2019 World Cup squad, he was not selected.
This was despite showing good form for the Cape Cobras in the Cricket South Africa (CSA) T20 Challenge. Not only was he the joint fifth-highest wicket-taker in the competition, he was fifth in the batting averages with a strike rate of 153.60. He also scored a century in late 2018 for the Cape Cobras against the Dolphins in the 4-Day franchise series.
Even when Anrich Nortje was removed from the World Cup squad in May because of injury, the replacement was Chris Morris and not Philander. There was widespread comment that the batting tail in the ODI squad was looking too long, and it would have looked a lot stronger with Philander there.
Interestingly, Philander is a firm believer that it is time to drop the implementation of racial quotas in the national team – but in the case of the World Cup, he certainly deserved to be selected on track record, experience and all-round ability.
In seven years of Test cricket, Philander says the best batsmen he bowled to were the Australians Michael Clarke and Warner.
“But you always have a chance of getting them out,” he says, “because they were always playing their strokes.”
He also has a lot of admiration for Herschelle Gibbs – “an unbelievable talent – the game needs characters like him. Give him the stage and he will perform.” The best captain he has played under was Smith – “a strong leader” – and the best coach Gary Kirsten – “what a man-manager he is: he knows how to handle each player to get the best out of him”.