Cape Town – Fuelled by his clear statistical regression from once-giddy heights in recent times, there is a school of thought that Vernon Philander should be well less than guaranteed a start when South Africa open their Test season against New Zealand at Kingsmead in the first of two contests later this month.
I beg to differ, and quite spiritedly so.
For starters, I would argue that Philander, who has been in gradual recovery from a serious ankle injury that laid him low for several months last summer, got plenty of genuinely useful overs back below his belt during July.
There have been no especially stellar hauls yet on the comeback trail for Philander, who is now a 31-year-old so it probably takes a little longer to get the engine purring fully again.
But the often sun-baked, benign strips at Harare and Bulawayo, especially, are no great places for “SuperVern’s” best, nip-it-away-from-the-bat attributes to thrive, so just being able to send down a total of 55 typically economical overs against Zimbabwe ‘A’ before switching to Aussie terrain for the first of two unofficial Tests against that nation’s second string could still be offered as tangible progress on the bounce-back trail from him.
He did provide one of relatively few high points from a visiting point of view during the bulky Australia ‘A’ first knock at the Allan Border Field a few days ago, bagging 3/52 in 25 overs, so ever-improving durability and stamina is seemingly being accompanied by an inching, upward curve in strike terms.
Philander has reportedly been withdrawn from the second clash at Townsville, starting on Saturday, in order to head home and prepare for the unusually early start to the top-tier Test season; hopefully it is more a case of having “seen enough” of his bowling of late and now simply cotton-wooling him for the Tests, rather than down to any new injury or niggle concerns.
I suspect he will be, fitness permitting, a relative shoe-in for the first Test against the visiting Kiwis.
Of course I hear the argument that if the Proteas are going to stick to their favoured formula of engaging only four specialist bowlers – enabling a seven-strong recognised batting line-up – the Cape Cobras customer will be under extra pressure to start claiming scalps more prolifically again.
His Test career -- incredibly still only spanning fewer than five years, remember -- is marked by quite dazzling success in the earliest phase, which explains why he became the joint second-fastest in history to 50 wickets in only his seventh Test.
Getting to 100 after 19 wasn’t too shabby either; just five have previously reached that mark more swiftly.
But it is a slightly bizarre fact nevertheless that all nine of Philander’s five-wicket hauls thus far have come in his first 28 bowling innings, so none in a further 32 which does tell a tale of a certain tapering off, doesn’t it?
Yet the first phase of his Test odyssey also coincided with pitches much more tailor-made to his strengths, and the next few months – including two home series and an end-of-season one away to New Zealand – should see at least a partial return to such favourable environments for him.
Admittedly the first Test against the Black Caps shortly isn’t exactly being staged in sticky high summer in Durban, but even if the pitch is slow (as widely expected) there may just be enough seam movement around to interest Philander.
But perhaps people forget that every attack also requires at least one bowler capable of sending down long spells and doing a suitable “holding” job, enabling others – in SA’s case, men like Dale Steyn and Kagiso Rabada – to stick to their best striking instincts in sharp, intense bursts.
It is here that Philander has increasingly been a confident, possibly under-rated contributor even if the high-fives for abundant personal hauls have dwindled for the time being to a bit of a trickle.
His economy rate after 32 Tests is a commendable 2.75, confirming that he has remained a pressure-builder – much like Shaun Pollock redeveloped into toward his later Test years -- for the most part even when his activity in the wickets column has been laboured.
The Proteas’ present first-choice spinner, Dane Piedt, although by no means an unmovable part of the Test furniture at this stage of his development, could also benefit from someone like Philander doing a run-curtailment job at one end – the “offie” is at that still-fledgling phase where the national side can’t be totally sure whether (or when) he is a true strike factor, or a budding game-stopper when needed, slightly in the Paul Harris mould.
Throw in his occasional stout resilience and scrapping qualities as a batsman – an ability that the Proteas arguably don’t fully recognise or appreciate – and Philander is still an important component of the SA five-day arsenal.
You sense he’s just a good guy to have on your side.
It would be crazy not to field him at Kingsmead, but I believe the SA brains trust will.
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