Vernon Philander casually strolled in, hit that unplayable length between full and short and rapped Murali Vijay on the pad. The Indian opener missed his flick and watched as Philander started celebrating even before the umpire had given him out. The finger went up and a reluctant Vijay almost walked off but his opening partner Shikhar Dhawan prompted him to review. Replays showed the ball going over the top of the stumps and Vijay was saved.
Virat Kohli in the dressing room instantly stood up, applauding the review, possibly, for once, pretty happy with the ball tracking — something he wasn't very pleased with in South Africa's first innings. Not long after, Vijay reviewed another one off Philander. This time the ball beat the outside edge and Quinton de Kock pouched an easy catch with the umpire's finger going up instantly. But replays revealed that Vijay had missed the ball.
Faf du Plessis seemed upset, de Kock had his mouth wide open and de Villiers in the cordon looked surprised. Not Philander. He walked back to his mark, ran in and landed the ball exactly at the same place again...and again...and again. The Tamil Nadu opener was seemingly living a charmed life but it wouldn't last long.
On the second last ball of over nine, Murali Vijay poked at Philander, fed up with the nagging channel he was consistently sticking to. The edge was found and the catch taken cleanly by AB de Villiers. Philander burst into his celebratory run as India had lost their second with the score on 30 while in pursuit of a fourth innings target of 208.
Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma appeared confident, almost bullish. Kagiso Rabada was hitting the bat hard as was Morne Morkel. The duo, who have orchestrated quite a few magnificent partnerships in limited-overs cricket, seemed to have struck a chord at Newlands.
They had resurrected the innings from the debacle that it was at 39/3 and the Indians seemed to be on their way towards a rare victory. After all, this was the 'Hitman' batting alongside one of the best run-chasers in the history of One-Day International (ODI) cricket. 208 was not even a hill for them.
But red-ball cricket is an altogether different proposition as was Newlands, where Vernon Philander was first spotted by Johannas Adams, a mentor of sorts and the man at whom the wily seamer waves after taking each wicket at Newlands.
“He had the same run-up, same bowling style and the same amount of patience he shows now. He is very consistent. He looks to bowl at one spot all the time and run down the batsmen with patience. He has a very positive mindset. During our long drives back from games, even if things hadn’t gone his way, he never sounded disappointed. Actually, he has never been down all his life," Adams told the Indian Express.
Perhaps, it is this confidence and steadfastness that forced South Africa captain Faf du Plessis to go back to his strike force in the absence of Dale Steyn, as Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma showed ominous signs on Day 4 at Newlands.
Philander bowled eleven balls to Virat Kohli spreading across six overs in this spell, landing the ball outside the off-stump on an imaginary fourth stump channel every single time. Kohli either defended, left carefully or nudged with soft hands.
The Indian skipper was beginning to settle down and when that happens, India usually go only one way. But this was different.
The 12th ball from Philander landed on middle-stump, a completely different line from what he had bowled to Kohli thus far, and nibbled back at a friendly pace of less than 125kmph. In India, that is bread and butter stuff for Kohli. He would nonchalantly flick that to the mid-wicket boundary.
But at Newlands, Kohli, playing around his front pad, missed the ball and once again, Big Vern did not wait for the umpire to raise his finger as he celebrated insanely. The review couldn't save Kohli either; Philander had broken the stand and the backbone of India's middle-order.
Next over, he had Rohit Sharma fishing outside the off-stump to a delivery that was constantly moving away. The inside edge crashed into the stumps as Philander had India at his mercy. 76/5 read the scorecard and three of the most important wickets in the Indian top-order had gone to the miserly Philander.
At 82/7, India were virtually out of the contest. Chasing 208 from here, with first innings hero, Hardik Pandya, back in the hut seemed impossible. But they had a resilient Ashwin and a bowler who believed he could bat as well as any of the top order batsmen — Bhuvneshwar Kumar.
Slowly but steadily, the duo chipped away. Ashwin was the enforcer, nudging the ones and twos and taking the odd boundary while Bhuvneshwar held fort. The lanky seamer has a good record with the bat in England and had done his part in the first innings as well, combining with Pandya in an entertaining 99-run stand where his job was to ensure he wouldn't get out.
At first, South Africa were playful, almost eyeing the clock to see how soon this would get over. Slowly, the unlikely pair started to worry the Proteas. The drooping shoulders in the Indian dressing room started to lift and fans stopped moving from their seats lest a wicket fell.
At 131/7, India were certainly coming back into the match. The 49-run stand was their best in the innings but du Plessis refused to press the panic button by bringing back a tired Morne Morkel or Kagiso Rabada. He stuck to Keshav Maharaj and Vernon Philander and the latter justified the move in one over that sealed India's coffin with a tight nail.
He got rid of Ashwin, invoking an outside edge to de Kock — standing upto the stumps — and removed Mohammad Shami and Jasprit Bumrah on consecutive balls to clean up India's hopes. Philander, who had decimated the Aussies on his debut at the very ground, had six wickets to his name and a well-deserved Man of the Match award, his third at Newlands. At this venue, he now has 47 wickets in eight Tests with four five-wicket hauls.
He had not only won the Test for South Africa, but showed how immensely threatening his medium-pace can be. No wonder, legendary West Indies pacer Michael Holding raved at Philander’s abilities.
“This is a very good bowling attack (South Africa's). It has all the bases covered. The four that we had, we complemented each other as well, we were a little bit different. But Vernon Philander is completely different to anything that we had. On that type of pitch he is virtually unplayable. We didn’t have anyone like that. We had good bowlers, some great bowlers, Marshall and Roberts... the four that we had, had more pace but we didn’t have a Vernon Philander," Holding opined.
His words pretty much sum up what an outrageously talented bowler Vernon Philander is. His stellar burst left India wounded and bruised — a feeling they were familiar with in overseas Tests but one that they hadn't experienced in a while. Philander has re-opened India’s wounds at Newlands.