Vernon Philander doesn’t look like an elite modern athlete. At 175 cm (5-foot-9-inches) and with a slight paunch around his midriff, he has the physique of a regular civilian, someone who jogs the occasional 5 km, helps himself to seconds of his wife’s Sunday roast, is partial to the occasional pint of beer with his mates, plays a bit of cricket.
But with a ball in his hand, especially the red kind, Vernon Philander transcends what we expect from elite modern athletes. To call him a master of his craft is to do him a disservice. No one in the world does what he does. He is not simply a modern great but an immortal for any era. That he has a dad bod only adds to his legend.
This week he announced he would retire from international cricket after the four-Test series against England starting on Boxing Day in Centurion. Should he play all four (and only fitness would prevent him from doing so) he will leave with 64 Tests to his name. We may never see his like again.
He made his debut in his home ground of Newlands in Cape Town. Michael Clarke’s Australians were in town for a good time, not a long time, and the two-Test series was all Philander had to work with.
He had already experienced international cricket, making his T20I and ODI debuts in 2007, but this was his natural environment. He might not have looked it, but in these parts, he was an apex predator.
He once shot back at English journalists with the famous retort, “stats don’t lie” and he’s a always had the numbers to support his overt confidence.
Before his Test debut he had averaged 16.1, 27.6, 14.7, 16.1 and 16.8 in five seasons of domestic cricket. He was ready.
South Africa’s captain Graeme Smith won the toss and elected to bowl first, perhaps sensing that Big Vern’s first foray on centre stage would wield dividends. Dale Steyn – lithe, fast, a natural athlete, the antithesis of Philander in almost every way – had the first wicket with an unplayable snorter to remove Shane Watson in the fourth over.
Nine balls later, Philander announced his intentions.
It was little more than 130km/h (fast for Vern) and landed on that perfect length around middle and off with a pristine seam that wobbled ever so slightly while still maintaining its shape. A kiss off the deck and a little movement away from the left-handed Phillip Hughes forced him to poke at it despite his better judgement.
Ball introduces itself to the shoulder of bat momentarily before nestling comfortably in Mark Boucher’s gloves. Already then, after just one wicket, this felt like a trademark Vernon Philander dismissal.
Clarke scored 151 to drag his team to 284 and then watched from second slip as Watson (5 for 17) and Ryan Harris (4 for 33) decimated South Africa and left the hosts on their knees at 96 all out.
Smith needed a miracle and his savour arrived not on a galloping horse but with a slight waddle and a jiggle.
After Steyn removed Watson in the first over, Philander laid down a marker for a decade that he would own. In the sixth over he had Ricky Ponting trapped lbw for a duck. In the eighth he pinned Clarke on the crease when the Aussie skipper was on two. In the ninth Brad Haddin’s strange stroke – born out of frustration and relentless pressure – gifted Boucher another catch behind the stumps. In the 11th, a double strike saw off Mitchell Johnson and Shaun Marsh and rounded off a mesmerising spell of 5 for 15 from seven overs.
Morne Morkel bagged three wickets, Steyn ended with two, but it was Vernon Philander who played the starring role in bowling Australia out for 47, their fourth lowest total in their history.
“He is probably the hardest I faced in world cricket,” Ponting said of Philander this week. “You don’t get any visual clues with the swinging ball. Most guys when there’s movement, the ball actually swings in the air first and you have some sort of idea of which way the ball is going to go.
“He doesn’t swing the ball at all. It comes out of his hand dead straight and he doesn’t know which way it’s going to go off the pitch either. He’s just a class act when the ball is seaming.”
Since that match in Cape Town, which South Africa won by eight wickets, Philander has been the best seam bowler on the planet.
He became the second-joint fastest to 50 Test wickets, reached 100 scalps in just 19 matches. His 216 career wickets have come at an average of 22.16, a strike-rate of 49.9 and an economy of 2.66. Of the 75 bowlers who have taken more than 200 wickets, only Malcolm Marshall, Joel Garner, Curtley Ambrose, Fred Trueman and Glenn McGrath have managed a better average.
All five of the above bowlers were blessed with the physical gifts conventional wisdom dictates is necessary for fast bowling. Even if none had the accuracy required to ask questions from 22 yards, they all had enough gas or height to trouble the best batters.
Philander doesn’t have the height or fast twitch muscle fibres or beefy biceps or long legs. All he’s got is his uncomplicated, repeatable action and the knowledge that no matter who’s holding the bat at the other end, the last thing they’ll want is a ball landing on a tricky area that forces them to prod outside their off stump.
But the mind can only force the body to do so much. Had Philander taken his fitness more seriously perhaps there would be more left in the tank to help shepherd this young bowling attack to maturity.
At 34, he has decided enough is enough at the highest level, though talk of a Kolpak deal has gathered steam.
“You get to a stage where you have to make a decision,” Philander said on Monday. “I’ve had a wonderful career. Personally I’ve done what I wanted to. I was part of the number one team in the world for a couple of years and that was always the aim. I want to leave on a high, get the team going and back up on the graph again.”
With Kagiso Rabada alongside him and other youthful quicks primed to do the hard work, Philander will look to do against England what he’s always done, at a casual speed, and with a relatable frame.
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