“Why are you interviewing me? Vern is the guy you need to speak to!” was Dale Steyn’s response to a question prior to the start of South Africa’s Test series in New Zealand.
It was a telling statement, especially when coming from the world’s No 1-ranked fast bowler. It certainly made the Kiwi press contingent sit up. “Do you guys have somebody better than Steyn, surely not?” was their first reaction.
After perusing recent statistics, it changed from a sense of disbelief to one of fear that the Black Caps may be entering the lion’s den, where they would not only have to contend with the pace of Steyn and the bounce of Morné Morkel, but also the accuracy of Vernon Philander.
And that is exactly how the Test series has unfolded for the New Zealand batsmen. They have simply not been allowed to break the shackles, with South Africa’s pace arsenal not offering any form of relief. It has been a consistent barrage of pain unleashed through the effective use of the short ball and consistent lines and lengths.
Steyn and Morkel may not be among the Proteas’ chief wicket-takers at the moment, although to be fair to Steyn, he could have had a couple more on Monday had JP Duminy not left his hands in the pancake syrup jar for most of the morning.
But this does not bother the duo. In fact, it infuriates them when asked about it, because they are simply happy to bask in the glory of Philander’s phenomenal success, which reached unprecedented heights when the Proteas seam bowler joined England’s Tom Richardson as the second-fastest bowler ever to 50 Test wickets. He needed just seven Tests to get to the milestone.
And like Philander paid tribute to his bowling partners on Monday by saying “this attack gives me the freedom to do what I need to do”, so Black Caps opening batsman Daniel Flynn had only high praise for a Proteas bowling unit nearing the peak of their powers.
“They’re at you the whole time; it’s a quality attack and there are no freebies out there,” Flynn said. “I think you’d find a lot of people would probably say they are the best seam-bowling attack going around in world cricket at the moment.
“Morkel gets that extra bit of bounce. Philander just hits consistent areas and he is consistently asking questions. They complement each other well and they all come at you in a different way.”
Philander, though, is the spearhead of the Proteas attack right now. For years, Steyn has worn that mantle with distinction. And to think he is a spent force would be farcical, as he showed with a brilliant opening spell where pace and swing were on display.
Likewise Morkel remains a threat, as he showed when he broke Black Caps captain Ross Taylor’s wrist with a venomous rising delivery yesterday.
But it is Philander who responds to captain Graeme Smith’s call for a wicket now more than most. He did so again most spectacularly yesterday, claiming 6/81 to not only equal Richardson’s feat, but also place South Africa within striking distance of achieving a remarkable victory.
The Capetonian admitted that he has needed to adjust his regular lines in New Zealand. Whereas he is usually content to bowl the “fourth stump” line and “keep it simple” by consistently hitting his areas, he has also taken on a few pointers from Steyn, Morkel and even rookie Marchant de Lange in how to attack the Kiwis.
“A few of their guys don’t like the short ball. It’s been part of our plan to exploit short-pitched bowling and rough them up. It’s not normally part of my plan, but we have the firepower in Morné and Dale and we use it to best effect.”
This strategy worked for Philander on Monday when Dean Brownlie attempted a pull shot, but could only find Steyn at fine-leg. But then again, everything he touches at the moment turns to gold as he certainly is the one with the Midas touch.
QUICKEST TO 50
6–Charlie Turner (Aus) v England, Manchester, 30 August 1888
7–Tom Richardson (Eng) v Australia, Lord’s, 22 June 1896; Vernon Philander (RSA) v New Zealand, Wellington, 26 March 2012
8–Fred Spofforth (Aus) v England, Sydney, 17 February 1883; Alf Valentine (WI) v Australia, Melbourne, 31 December 1951; Rodney Hogg (Aus) v Pakistan, Perth, 24 March 1979; Terry Alderman (Aus) v Pakistan, Brisbane, 27 November 1981; Bobby Peel (Eng) v Australia, Manchester, 30 August 1888
QUICKEST SA BOWLERS TO 50 TEST WICKETS
7–Vernon Philander v New Zealand, Wellington
9–Peter Pollock v New Zealand, Wellington
11–Bert Vogler v England, Johannesburg; Allan Donald v Australia, Adelaide
12–Aubrey Faulkner v England, Cape Town – Cape Times