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Philander has reportedly been withdrawn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
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
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
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
It would be crazy not to field him at
Kingsmead, but I believe the SA brains trust will.
our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing