Cape Town - In an exclusive interview, Proteas bowler VERNON PHILANDER talks about his cricket beginnings, the toughest batsmen he has ever faced and why he backed AB de Villiers to call it quits for South Africa.
Sport24 asked: Were you something of a teen prodigy on the cricket front?
Vernon Philander: Cricket has always been in my blood. I was in the Tygerberg first XI from the age of 14 playing against men. I still have some nightmares about it every now and again. However, going up against fully grown cricketers moulded me into who I am today. When I joined Ravensmead High, there were no cricket facilities to speak of because they weren’t a cricket playing school. However, when the principal called to see who wanted to play cricket, of course I was at the front of the queue. It was also any excuse to get out of the classroom, but education is equally important. (The Proteas veteran has since launched the Vernon Philander Cricket Academy to give back to the game). The following year, they laid a concrete pitch and off we went. However, most of the cricket I played in the early stages of my career was at Florida Park. I was 15 when I made the Western Province under-19 side and had an advantage because I had played against senior cricketers from the age of 14. I made my first-class debut for Western Province in 2004. I was 18 at the time and I remember we played against KwaZulu-Natal in the SuperSport Series final in Cape Town and claimed the trophy. What better way to make your first-class debut in a final and stand up and be counted?
Sport24 asked: How did your Test debut for South Africa come about in 2004?
Vernon Philander: I had the privilege of playing with Gary Kirsten in his last two seasons at Western Province. When he took over as Proteas coach he gave me a call and said, “Listen, I’m looking to play you.” I had had four proper years of first-class cricket and I was exploring other avenues in cricket before I made my Test debut for South Africa against Australia at Newlands. I played in a warm-up match in Potchefstroom and from there I got called up to play for my country. It was good preparation for me and an eye-opener to what Test cricket was about. Having faced me in the nets, the senior players said: “There is only one candidate and it’s you, Vern.” While a nervous start to my Test career, I couldn’t have asked for a better beginning. Having played four years of first-class cricket really prepared me for the step up. Sport is like life and if you have experience, you feel so much more confident taking up a role or going into a job. For me, those four years really made me into who I am. It was about putting in the hard work and sticking to the grind week-in and week-out.
Sport24 asked: How did you develop into the premier bowler you are today?
Vernon Philander: Playing first-class cricket allowed me to get to know myself as a player and a person. Some said I wasn’t quick enough for international cricket and that is why I wasn’t selected sooner. I suppose you could argue that point. However, having said that, I have seen many a quick bowler come and go because I have been around the block. It was about honing my skills and I now have a skillset I trust and believe in. Playing international sport comes with pressure, but I focus on what I can bring to the party. I try not to get too carried away with the conditions and aim to keep it as simple as possible… The modern game is heading in the direction where bowlers are sacrificing pace for control because wickets are getting slower and flatter. Being able to bowl with control comes down to the amount of patience you have. It’s about being able to execute when the time arrives. We live in a world where people want instant gratification – they want to snap their fingers and see it happen. For a youngster, the idea is to bowl two away swingers and for the third to be the wicket ball. My philosophy is to set up batsmen over a longer period of time. They keep leaving the ball and before they know it, I have got the cherry to come back and take the wicket. Whereas, the modern trend is to see it happen straight away. We need to remind the young players that there are processes to follow and you don’t roll a team over cheaply all the time. In terms of my Test strike rate, every eight or nine overs I take a wicket and it’s not about taking a wicket every three overs. Every now and again a bowler may have a magic spell, but running through a batting line-up probably only happens once every six Test matches. Bringing your A game doesn’t mean bowling unplayable deliveries all the time. Meanwhile, as a batsman you have to get yourself in before playing big shots. You have to be prepared to put in the hard yards and totally respect the processes.
Sport24 asked: How important are bowling partnerships and what’s your role?
Vernon Philander: Like with batting, you have to know what is happening on the other side. For me, having played so much cricket I have a good understanding of what to do out in the middle. When the likes of Kagiso Rabada and Lungi Ngidi play, I adjust my role slightly. I’m not going to go and try and be greedy - my aim is to keep it tight in order to allow them to strike and give them the freedom to bowl the way they want. If you take KG as an example, sometimes he will be going for five or six runs an overs, which means that if I leak runs on the other side we will be in trouble. Having played the game for long enough now, I understand the role and responsibilities of bowling in partnerships.
Sport24 asked: Who are some of the toughest batsmen you’ve bowled to - and why?
Vernon Philander: When it comes to the most challenging batsmen I have ever bowled to over my career, there are quite a few. It’s the way they address you as a bowing attack, which determines their level of difficulty. Any time a batsman is positive in terms of his outlook and shot-making; he is difficult to bowl to in my opinion. When facing Australia in the past, the likes of Ricky Ponting, Michael Clarke and David Warner have proved tough opponents because they came at you the whole time. They didn’t allow you to settle and they always tried to upset your line and length. Those players were pretty tough to bowl to in their conditions and the same applies to the top batsmen I have faced on the subcontinent because they try to get on top of you as quickly as possible. I can relate to that because on a batting front when the situation gets tight I like to expand and express myself. By doing so, you take the game to the opposition. It’s not about being stupid and playing extravagant shots, but it’s about being positive and transferring the pressure back onto your opponents. AB de Villiers is the perfect example of a batsman, irrespective of the stage of the game, who played positively. As a bowler, when the pressure gets shifted back onto you, you don’t enjoy it. (Philander, currently battling an ankle injury, is not expected to bowl until early November).
Sport24 asked: What did you make of AB de Villiers’s international retirement?
Vernon Philander: I was a bit surprised to be honest with you, but AB had played a lot of cricket. Myself and AB came a long way together - we were teammates for the South African under-19 side in 2003 and have a strong bond. He spoke to me during the Australia series and he said he has a young family and was considering calling it quits (for South Africa). With the amount of cricket he was playing and all the pressure on him, I think he just thought the time was right to call it a day internationally, with all upcoming fixtures for South Africa. He probably got to a stage where it was either going to be family or cricket, and he chose the former. You have got to give it to the guy - he served his country with immense pride and you couldn’t ask anything more of him. There is a time in all of our careers when enough is enough. (De Villiers is still set to play in T20 leagues around the world and announced his decision to join Pakistan Super League (PSL) for the fourth edition in 2019).