Cape Town – It would be short-sighted if the Proteas’ brains trust, admittedly from faraway Australia, have taken scant notice of Vernon Philander’s excellence at his second trade – batting – on his comeback to competitive cricket earlier this week.
Representing the Cape Cobras in their ongoing, 4-Day Franchise Series match against the Dolphins at his treasured Newlands after more than three months on the side-lines through injury, the seasoned all-rounder struck his third career first-class century.
By all accounts, it was a typically tenacious, patiently-constructed vigil by Philander … and probably worth around double its weight in gold considering the circumstances as he strode out in trademark, bustling fashion.
The Cobras had slumped to 65 for five in their first innings when he took guard, joining opening batsman Pieter Malan.
Between them, the pair utterly transformed the home team’s knock, amassing a stand of 228 for the sixth wicket – apparently in often challenging conditions influenced by fickle Capetonian early-summer weather.
While the 29-year-old specialist Malan continued his healthy form in the domestic competition thus far with 153 – he already sports an earlier century against the Knights plus 87 against the Titans – Philander’s own stoical contribution of 104 in just over five hours from the No 7 spot simply underlined how his batting worth is sometimes not fully appreciated.
At least part of that hallmark, almost certainly, is linked to the reverence with which his canny, accurate seam bowling is regarded, particularly at Test level where his 55 appearances have seen him snare 205 wickets at a sublime average of 21.54.
But perhaps those who monitor his bowling exertions closely are guilty of overlooking, at least to a degree, just what a calm, resilient and technically-accomplished factor he is with the willow – maybe more so than ever.
Especially as his degree of street-wisdom only increases at the demanding Test crease, against some of the best attacks available on the planet, the 33-year-old right-hander proves harder and harder to knock over.
That has been evident often enough in the five-day game for South Africa over the last year or two, where Philander has shown powers of perseverance sometimes eclipsing several team-mates in significantly higher positions in the order.
In short, he keeps demonstrating that he’s a good man for a crisis: and let’s face it, the national team have seen enough of those batting-wise during the period in question, both in the Test and limited-overs landscape which explains their patchy series performances.
Currently overlooked for one-day international purposes, he has had to show those scrapping qualities for the Proteas in longer-format combat alone: his last of 30 ODI appearances came in August 2015.
He keeps producing either obdurate vigils or more enterprising little cameos, depending on the team situation … enough, frankly, to make you wonder quite deeply whether he shouldn’t be serving the national cause around No 7 or 8 (an especially problematic area in the one-day team) in both environments.
Philander has frequently looked a good bit less at sea both technically and temperamentally against either spin or seam than supposedly superior stroke-players in the SA Test line-up - and he has done it in hugely contrasting conditions, too.
For those who may have forgotten, he prospered in England – where CWC 2019 is to be hosted – during the 2017 Test series, making 52 not out and 19 at Lord’s and 54 and 42 at Trent Bridge.
He then made important runs in the first post-isolation home Test series triumph over Australia last summer, and in his last Test match, on a Galle turner, faced more deliveries (124) across both innings against Sri Lanka than any compatriot in an embarrassing reverse where South Africa registered lamentable totals of 126 and 73.
“Big Vern” may not be a pronounced, clear-the-ropes sort of player in the lower middle-order, but he has most of the major strokes – including a crisp cover drive and conviction-laden pull – and defends his wicket with a pride and determination that the Proteas, I firmly contend, desperately need, across the formats.
While it is true that Philander’s ODI batting record isn’t special at all (average 12.58, with a top score of 30 not out) much of that can be put down to the fact that he has frequently in the past come in when the slog is on, and the team usually in better fettle on the scoreboard than they have been in more recent months.
The fragility of the current side, with AB de Villiers retired and Hashim Amla in quite sharp decline from his own giddying peak, means that his more measured, hold-up-an-end approach could provide greater stability in the second half of a 50-overs innings than coach Ottis Gibson and company realise.
At worst, he is a great presence to have at the other end – the buffer ahead of a notoriously fluffy tail, in many respects - if one senior SA batsman, for instance, happens to be firing productively in an ODI knock.
And just a sharp little reminder if it were even needed: the guy bowls a pretty decent delivery, too.
I have an inescapably strong sense that the high-quality, comprehensive Philander package is being too flippantly overlooked for Proteas limited-overs purposes, in seriously topsy-turvy times …
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