Brisbane - Vernon Philander superstar. That’s the only way to describe the Proteas pace bowler at the moment after a sensational start to his Test career.
In June, he was a shoo-in as CSA’s Cricketer of the Year; now, he has taken an even bigger leap into the sporting stratosphere by becoming SA Sportsman of the Year.
It’s enough to go to any man’s head, but Philander, currently preparing for Friday’s first Test against Australia at the Gabba here, doesn’t behave as if his head is swelling.
“Receiving this award is a proud moment in my career,” he said on Monday after he and the Proteas arrived in Brisbane after completing their warm-up match against Australia A in Sydney.
“It hasn’t really sunk in. I received all the messages and mails in the middle of the night because of the time difference, so at the moment, I’m trying to process it all.”
The start to the 27-year-old Philander’s career has been well documented for a very good reason, namely that he reached 50 wickets in his seventh Test, the second-fastest man to achieve that feat.
Now he has 63 in 10, including a Man-of-the-Match effort against England at Lord’s in the third Test, when he not only picked up his seventh five-wicket haul just when it was needed, but also contributed crucial runs with the bat (61 in the first innings and 35 in the second) to help his team win the match and take over the No 1 ranking in the world.
In just a year, the man from Ravensmead in Cape Town has become almost a comic-book hero, a status he modestly acknowledged on Monday. “I’ve had a pretty special 12 months, it’s almost been a dream. My debut against Australia at Newlands was an amazing start to my career, but I never thought that the year would unfold the way it has,” he said.
“There have been some special memories out on the pitch - being one of the fastest to 50 wickets and my two 10-fors, of course - but the one that stands out is the Lord’s Test match and the team regaining the No 1 Test ranking.
“What makes the award even more special are the quality sportsmen that I beat in the category. They have all had a great year in their respective fields. I was also up against Hashim (Amla), and we all know what an unbelievable season he has had, so this is quite special.”
It’s been a remarkable journey. Asked what his secret has been, Philander gives a disarming smile. “For me, it’s all about keeping it very simple. “That’s exactly what I’ve done over the last year. Hopefully I won’t be changing too much going into this series.”
So, what exactly does he do? It’s certainly not blistering pace - a number of English cricket writers disdainfully called him a “county trundler” before the England series.
The key is that he does the basics very well. He invariably bowls the appropriate length for the conditions, generally makes the batsman play, and nibbles the ball either way off a perfectly presented seam. He also doesn’t bowl too many bad balls, so the batsmen are always under pressure.
Philander doesn’t mind if opponents are rude about him. “I don’t care what people think of me. So long as we take 20 wickets in a Test match, I’m happy. I just focus on playing my role as well as I can within the team structure.”
By his standards, Philander has had a quiet build-up to Brisbane, with two Sunfoil Series first-class matches in South Africa and last week’s warm-up on a slow, flat pitch at the Sydney Cricket Ground.
But unlike the insipid pitches he has recently been playing on, the Gabba is an organic, fully alive slice of earth, full of pace and bounce, that should bring the best out of South Africa’s miracle man.
And even if Philander is unable to maintain the intensity of his sizzling start - it would be a shock if he could - his hard work, excellent preparation and mastery of the basics will ensure that an aura of success will continue to hang over him.