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Durban - Proteas Test captain Graeme Smith confirmed New Zealand’s worst fears on Tuesday: that Vernon Philander is “provisionally fit” for the first Test starting at Newlands on Wednesday.
Philander, who has been struggling with a hamstring strain the past week which he got during a first-class match, was the Black Caps’ chief tormentor when these teams last met in New Zealand at the beginning of last year.
The Proteas opening bowler claimed 21 wickets in the series at just over 15 runs per wicket, which propelled him to 50 Test scalps quicker than anybody else this century.
“He’s come through his fitness test well,” Smith said on Tuesday.
“Unless he stiffens up later today or tonight, he’s fit to play. At the start of a new Test series, your pattern of play is always crucial and, from a bowling perspective, Vernon has an important part to play in attack.
“To have him fit is important – not only because he is a wicket-taker for us but because he also performs other roles which are crucial to the success of the team.”
Black Caps captain Brendon McCullum acknowledged the threat Philander posed, especially on a surface that had a fair amount of grass cover.
“He is an excellent bowler, his stats already have been phenomenal. He will be a tough proposition, one that we will need to be on our toes (for) and be able to counter the challenge he puts before us,” McCullum said.
Philander will form part of a potent Proteas pace trio that includes Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel.
Steyn, the torchbearer of South Africa’s attack, has added personal motivation to get stuck into the Kiwis on Wednesday.
The “Phalaborwa Express” is sitting pretty on 299 Test wickets, primed to become the joint third-fastest to reach the 300-wicket milestone.
Australia’s Dennis Lillee achieved the feat in 56 Tests and Sri Lanka’s Muttiah Muralitharan in 58.
Steyn will play his 61st match to put him level with New Zealand’s Richard Hadlee and West Indian Malcolm Marshall. Only three South Africans are ahead of Steyn on the all-time list: Shaun Pollock (421 at 23.11), Makhaya Ntini (390 at 28.82) and Allan Donald (330 at 22.25), who also reached the figures against the Black Caps.
“Dale is our go-to guy and he always seems to make an impact for us,” Smith said.
“As a captain, he is a real asset to have because I can throw him the ball and I know he will make a play somewhere in the match.
“When he gets that bit between his teeth, you really start to see things happening and other guys feed off him,” the skipper enthused.
South Africa are overwhelming favourites to make a clean sweep of this two-match series, with pundits even predicting that this Test will not last the distance.
The tourists have done little to suggest otherwise, taking into account a youthful South Africa Invitational XI kept them in the Paarl sun for a lengthy time over the weekend.
History also counts against a Black Caps upset, with the Proteas’ record at Newlands an impressive statistic.
Likewise, New Zealand’s past tours to South Africa do not offer any hope either, considering they were humiliated in 2007 when they lost by margins of 358 runs and an innings and 59 runs.
But Smith entertained no such talk on Tuesday, playing straighter than he ever does when at the crease, stating that his world No-1 ranked team have no thoughts of complacency.
“Certainly in our minds we did our work yesterday on the video and there’s a lot of respect and understanding for how we want to go about it. We played New Zealand in New Zealand (last season) and it’s not as easy as everyone says. If we can win it, and win well, that’s what we want to do,” Smith stressed. - The Mercury