Cape Town – A few weeks of unrelenting limited-overs
activity provide the Proteas with the perfect opportunity to strategically
cotton-wool the man who will be a prize asset in the New Zealand away Test
series … Vernon Philander.
As if their overall pace arsenal isn’t gratifyingly broadening
again anyway, a few weeks ago it seemed South Africa, blowing seriously hot
once more in the Test arena, would tackle the Black Caps over the three
contests with at least three customers massively suited to conditions there –
Philander, Kyle Abbott and Dale Steyn.
But for varying, well-publicised reasons neither of the last
two will be on tour, leaving “SuperVern” as the Proteas seamer most likely to be
a major factor in the series if pitches and weather turn out as expected in the
The wondrously promising Kagiso Rabada has already shown
that he has the nous and skill to adapt to just about all environments, so he
will have few reasons not to relish his maiden Test experience of New Zealand
during March, but it is nevertheless impossible not to regard Philander as the
foremost specialist ace up the Proteas’ sleeve for those shores.
His metronomic accuracy and patience in both line and length,
and ability to get the ball to routinely nip away from right-handers, comes
into its own hugely in New Zealand, so it is essential that he is well
preserved, and then readied, for the task.
While he is always an attractive enough thought for the more
abbreviated forms of the game, Philander has increasingly slipped off South
Africa’s one-day radar at international level – he was last used at ODI level
in August 2015.
So almost 18 months on, it seems unlikely that he will see any
service for the Proteas at all in a total of four Twenty20 internationals
(three against the ‘Lankans, one NZ), and 10 ODIs (five against each foe) in
the looming few weeks.
Instead he will – or should? – get an opportunity to focus
more on rest and conditioning for the next Test series, which begins in Dunedin
on March 8.
The 31-year-old has already bowled 92 overs in the just-completed
clean sweep of Sri Lanka in the one-sided three-Test portion of their tour here
– arguably a perfect sort of paceman’s tally for a series of that duration; not
too many, nor too few.
He confirmed during it (17 wickets at an outstanding average
of 14.58) that he was back very close to the lofty levels that marked his
sensational -- and a trifle belated -- introduction to Test cricket in late
2011, when he became the fastest modern-era bowler to 50 wickets, during only
his seventh Test.
A good part of that almost surreal prosperity came, of
course, during the last Proteas’ Test series in New Zealand (2011/12) when they
won 1-0 but dominated to a greater extent over the trio of clashes than the
Philander’s was the name on everyone’s lips, including
magnanimous Kiwi commentators and observers, as he constantly hounded the host
nation for 21 series scalps at 15.47: his returns, in order, were 4/72 and 1/29
in Dunedin, 4/70 and 6/44 in Hamilton (the key, “result” Test) and 6/81 and 0/29
New Zealand did not post a total that reached the 300-mark
or beyond in the entire series, with the Cape Cobras customer primarily
responsible for that.
It should interest him enormously that this season’s Tests
will be contested in exactly the same cities, if in slightly different order.
So Philander really needs to be carefully nursed, in
workload terms, through the next few weeks so that an untimely injury or some
other form of mishap doesn’t intervene; he has got back to a decent state of
fitness and stamina after a couple of disruptive injury-related setbacks.
Perhaps the most activity he will have will be a presence in
one or two of the Cobras’ remaining Sunfoil Series matches – they are still due
to play the Titans (Centurion, from January 26), Knights (Paarl, from February
2) and Dolphins (Durban, from February 9).
But there should also be few quibbles if he engages in
largely out-of-competition prep for the Black Caps’ challenge … it is that
important that he is firing on all cylinders in March.
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