MANCHESTER – A dark cloud hangs over Vernon Philander’s international future as a series of injuries and a seeming reluctance to take to the field – even with a tiny niggle – have left teammates and viewers questioning his commitment.
He bowled through severe discomfort at The Oval last week where he was diagnosed with a viral infection, and had to spend a night in hospital on a drip.
And ahead of this fourth Test with the series on the line, he declared himself as being “a lot better”, and was hopeful of a good week.
He underwent a fitness test on Thursday which according to the team doctor, Mohammed Moosajee, he failed.
However, former captain Graeme Smith, speaking on the BBC’s Test Match Special, said he was “frustrated” with Philander, who “spends more time off the field than he does on it. From a senior player and a leader of the team, South Africa want more from him. Find a way to front up”.
Smith then referred to Philander’s “so-called injuries” which have kept him out of this series decider.
Over the course of his six-year international career, Philander has missed 11 out of potentially 57 Tests, seven of which came after he ruptured ankle ligaments in pre-match warm-ups ahead of the second Test in India in November 2015.
Philander then suffered a groin injury playing for Sussex earlier this year, which directly impacted on his preparations for this series.
At Lord’s he apparently played through the pain, hinting afterwards he was reluctant to play there at all.
Speaking on commentary later, Smith said: “As far as Vernon Philander is concerned, you have to start asking questions about the fitness of the man. He can’t seem to get through series anymore.
“There’s no doubting his skills, he’s a great bowler, but he lets himself down with all these niggles, which makes it hard to build a team… it makes things very challenging.”
Philander, along with Andile Phehlukwayo, will return to South Africa this weekend, and it is believed there was strong words between Philander and captain Faf du Plessis, who at his pre-match media briefing had certainly expected Philander to play.
There have been other instances with Philander and doubts about his willingness to play.
One famous incident occurred at Port Elizabeth in 2014 in the second Test against Australia, where Philander claimed he had a tight back.
Following firm words from then-captain Smith, Philander’s name was scratched on to the team sheet just seconds before the toss.
The Cape Cobras star bowled 30 overs in that Test and claimed five wickets.
Because of the importance of this fourth Test, the Proteas were willing to risk playing Philander – although not as big a gamble as at The Oval, where he was only half-fit owing to the viral infection – supplementing for his back ailment with the extra seamer.
However with Philander out, the team reverted back to a seven front-line batsmen structure.
And that is how important Philander is to this South African team now.
To say it’s built around him may be stretching it a bit, but his presence drives the tactical strategising of the side, and in his absence, others need to step up and play a different role.
Conditions, particularly in the first session on Friday, would have suited Philander – overcast, damp even, with a fresh pitch assisting the bowler that hits the seam.
In Philander’s absence, the Proteas had to employ spinner Keshav Maharaj more than they would have wanted on the first day.
That Maharaj did such an excellent job is of great credit to him and his skill. He bowled nearly a third of South Africa’s overs on the first day – a much higher percentage than he’d normally be expected to bowl at the start of a Test.
Even Olivier, playing just his third Test, had to set aside his nerves as he only found out shortly before the toss that he’d be playing.
He had to produce a performance of greater discipline and accuracy than he’s ever been required to do at any stage of his career.
But having done that, following a strong chat with Faf du Plessis, his rewards were big ones – the wickets of his former SA Under-19 teammate Keaton Jennings and the more prized scalp of England captain Joe Root.
“The new ball was nipping around. You know I’m fairly new, and there were a lot of nerves. I just started a bit too wide, I just needed to settle in and with the older ball, the straighter I bowled, the more difficult it was to score,” said Olivier.