Cape Town – Just based on current returns, amidst a collective Proteas cause that is looking so cowed, Vernon Philander’s Indian Test tour is less than great shakes at this point.
The veteran seamer and tenacious lower middle-order batsman sports an unflattering bowling performance on paper after two Tests (both won by the host nation comfortably for an early triumph in the three-match series) of two wickets at an average of 77.50.
That is fairly gruesome stuff statistically for a player who still shows stellar career figures of 216 scalps at 22.16.
Truth be told, the Subcontinent has never been the most natural hunting ground for Philander, who is an altogether different prospect on seaming surfaces of the type often enough seen back in South Africa, or other -- often cooler-clime -- countries like New Zealand and England.
Nor is it as though he has been bowling noticeably badly in India thus far: the one thing he has quite routinely managed, and unlike many others in a generally blunt Proteas attack, is to keep a decent lid on the Indian scoring rate whenever he’s been operating at one end.
Despite the team’s haemorrhaging of runs in both Pune and Visakhapatnam to Virat Kohli and company, Philander has been managing to travel, across the two Tests, at an economy rate of only fractionally above two and a half runs to the over (2.58).
That figure looks quite glowing in comparison with several more hapless team-mates … and especially the Proteas’ spinners, most of whom have suffered considerable “tap”.
Striking in the wickets column regularly in Indian conditions was never a likely hallmark from the strictly medium-fast Philander; his ability to choke the flow of runs would have been intended to free up others to earn dismissals more routinely – something that has largely failed to happen.
It is also true that the man sometimes reverently branded “SuperVern” has been down on pace even by his relatively modest standards, too often getting the ball through at around the 122km/h mark when around 130 or more would be preferable.
But is can also be a notoriously hard slog for outright speed merchants and medium-pace bowlers alike in the stifling Indian weather, and operating at below normal velocity is a virtual necessity for varying periods in runs-heavy Tests there.
What is possibly being overlooked in the broad climate of despondency around the SA cause in the series – the final Test starts at Ranchi on Saturday (06:00 SA time) with only pride to play for – is the encouraging evidence from Philander with regard to his prospects for the important Test summer back home.
For one thing, the Capetonian is cutting a trimmer figure than he did last season, when he was also hampered more than he and the Proteas would have liked by niggles or more outright injuries.
He only played in three of the five home Tests (three against Pakistan, two Sri Lanka): remember that he has a particularly enviable record on home soil, where he averages 18.65 with the ball from 32 Tests in all.
Across the trio of contests he did take part in, Philander sent down a total of 75 overs in his rather stop-start international campaign.
The Proteas will probably need well more than that tally from him, as one of the most experienced and blue-chip members of their bowling arsenal, in the four-Test series against England, which begins on Boxing Day at Centurion.
So it should be considered good news that he has already sent down 60 overs over the course of two Tests in India, with one to come … a signal that his valued engine is beginning to fire again on something closer to full cylinders.
The more he gets back into a regular bowling stride, too, the more his pace should pick up in parallel proportions, setting him up nicely to be a key figure against the English around mid-summer.
Further honest, controlled graft from Philander in Ranchi, followed by the not too overs-heavy demands of the Mzansi Super League for Cape Town Blitz between November 8 and about mid-December, should tee the 34-year-old up perfectly to be a lethal combination of both runs-choker and major hauls-grabber in those keenly-anticipated clashes.
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