Proteas: The hazards of life after Philander

Vernon Philander (Gallo)
Vernon Philander (Gallo)

Cape Town - Enjoy him while you still can.

That is the obvious message to convey to Proteas enthusiasts over the next fortnight or so, as Vernon Philander plays his last two Test matches for South Africa against England at the business end of the gripping, currently deadlocked series at St George’s Park (from Thursday) and the Wanderers respectively.

But has anyone paused to properly consider yet the full extent of the impact, including in structural terms, the 34-year-old’s imminent retirement will have on the Test team?

Just for one thing, his constantly probing, bustling, land-it-on-a-penny seam bowling has earned him reverence from players, pundits and watchers worldwide over the course of a currently 62-cap career that began in such dramatic fashion against Australia at his beloved Newlands in November 2011.

One of the most topsy-turvy Tests imaginable saw Philander bag a sensational, quickfire haul of five for 15 as the Baggy Greens were routed for 47 (they were a more jaw-dropping 21 for nine at one point) in their second turn at the crease, the Graeme Smith-led Proteas going on to win by eight wickets.

It was only a taste of consistently compelling things to come on the bowling front from “SuperVern”, whose 222 wickets place him among an elite seven South Africans to have bagged 200 or more in the arena.

What’s more, his remains the best average of the group (22.10), narrowly seeing off both pack leader Dale Steyn (439 wickets at 22.95), and fourth-placed Allan Donald, whose 330 scalps have come at 22.25.

So it stands to reason that his expertise purely with the ball - especially when it is new, hard and seaming but also when reverse swing comes into play - will be sorely missed shortly.

But perhaps not mulled over sufficiently yet is the vital balance he has brought to the Test XI through his usefulness at the crease, too.

Philander has been a comforting presence in his most familiar slot at No 8 - and sometimes even one berth higher, depending on team makeup at varying times - serving as an important gateway between the more specialist batting arsenal and the tail.

Certainly with his average of just under 25 and total of 1 725 runs thus far, the Cape Cobras favourite has always been able to be branded a totally legitimate “bowling all-rounder” in the Test XI.

He has a technique and mental fortitude that probably should have earned him a century by now, instead of just his eight half-tons and a personal best of 74 against Pakistan at SuperSport Park in February 2013.

Philander has often taken guard in times of relative peril for South Africa, and at very worst occupied the crease stubbornly to help halt the rot, whether a relative one or more full-blown.

A glance at the number of deliveries he has faced across his three most recent Test matches bears out that tough-nut-to-crack observation: it begins with a particularly commendable 192 and 72 for scores of 44 not out and 37 against India at Pune, when he was perhaps South Africa’s best batsman in a depressing walloping by an innings.

Philander then transferred that form into the first Test against England at Centurion, with an 81-ball knock of 35 and 68-ball innings of 46 - vital runs each time in an often tense contest the Proteas won.

Even in the Newlands defeat over New Year, where his runs were a less productive 17 not out and eight, he still kept out 58 and 51 balls respectively in the patience-examining match.

Right now, the Proteas have about as good a balance to their team as could be achieved by them in present climes, with the versatile duo of Dwaine Pretorius and Philander occupying berths seven and eight, ensuring reasonably decent batting depth but also the luxury of a five-strong attack - which generally enables the more frontline strike bowlers to enjoy shorter but more intense spells.

Pretorius is still feeling his way into the Test plans (two caps, both in the current series) after being introduced to international cricket primarily in the white-ball landscape and, without truly wowing yet, shown some promise in both departments: St George’s Park, provided he plays, should provide good further pointers to his longer-term value (or not).

But he is nothing like Philander for strike potential, more customarily used as a “holding” factor and strictly fourth seamer ... although a pleasing little penchant is developing for him to take wickets just ahead of the advent of a second new ball.

For that reason, when Philander hangs up his boots after the Bullring, South Africa’s brains trust are likely to be more earnestly seeking an out-and-out strike bowler as replacement, and the name of currently injured Lungi Ngidi comes rapidly to mind if he can finally banish his fitness demons (he is still only 23).

A post-Philander attack of Messrs Rabada, Nortje, Ngidi, Pretorius and Maharaj?

It is very possible ... but will also leave an increased likelihood of a too-fluffy tail-end batting department, endangering someone like Pretorius if he is not chipping in sufficiently on all fronts and the selectors, probably still nervy about the collective batting, decide to revert to a more rigid “seven batsmen, four bowlers” sort of structure.

Yes, when Philander waves goodbye, the Proteas will automatically lose more than just a bowling genius: the balance of the team is also going to provide fresh, unwanted headaches …

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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