JOHANNESBURG – Looking back it seems incredible that Vernon Philander’s selection for the short Test series against Australia in 2011 caused so much controversy.
There was, as is usually the case with social media, a lot of conjecture. However Gary Kirsten, then the Proteas’ coach, knew exactly what he was doing. He’d done some of his own intelligence gathering and asked a lot of batsmen around the country a simple question: ‘Who was the toughest bowler to face in domestic cricket?’
The majority had one name. And his domestic record until then underscored those opinions.
It didn’t take long for Philander to win over the doubters. Three first innings wickets on his debut against Australia quickly showed he belonged at international level and then a stunning spell of 5/15 - that included what would become his patented ‘celebra-appeal’ - in the second innings when Australia was bowled out for 47, just about cemented his spot in the side.
There’ve been another 59 Tests since and another 208 wickets as well, as Philander established himself as one of the country’s great seam bowlers. Not quick by any means, but accurate and patient. He bowled with surgical precision and many of the world’s top batsmen couldn’t cope.
“He is probably the hardest I faced in world cricket with those type of conditions because you don't get any visual clues with the swinging ball," former Australian captain Ricky Ponting said while analysing Philander’s 5/21 in the first innings of the Hobart Test in 2016.
"Most other 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.
So you sort of end up trying to find and feel ... for which way the ball is going to go.
"He's just a class act when the ball is seaming."
Newlands and left-hand batsmen were favourites of Philander. Three of the four batsmen he dismissed the most in Test cricket were left handers; Australian pair Shaun Marsh and David Warner and former England captain Alastair Cook. At his home ground he’s taken 51 wickets in 10 matches, with an average of 17.60 and a strike rate of 37.2. Four of his 13 ‘five-fors,’ have come at the foot of Table Mountain.
"I would like to say a special thanks to my wife, family and friends for your loyalty and support on this journey which has obviously had its ups and downs. And to my number one fan since day one – Mom, thank you so much." - @VDP_24#BigVernRetirespic.twitter.com/90prZ41z38
And yet over the course of his career, Philander also irritated his own captains. Graeme Smith, who spoke glowingly of him on Monday, had stern words with Philander just moments before the toss in the 2014 Test against Australia in Port Elizabeth. Philander claimed he had a back problem, but Smith wasn’t buying it and ultimately was proved right as Philander picked up five wickets in that match.
Smith and Faf du Plessis would question Philander’s commitment and fitness ahead of the fourth Test against England in 2017. Philander was not happy with both of them and held some robust discussions with the pair, behind closed doors.
Nevertheless he was at his best in the series’s against India and Australia in 2017/18. His dismissal of Virat Kohli in the second innings of the Newlands Test, should be a teaching tool for young fast bowlers - it was patient and skilful, the work of a master. He wrapped up the series against Australia later that summer with career-best figures of 6/21 at the Wanderers, a spell that also saw him become the seventh South African bowler to get 200 Test wickets.
South Africa could and probably should have used him more in the 50-over format. He went to the World Cup in 2015, and became part of the pre-semifinal selection drama when he was included ahead of Kyle Abbott. He didn’t let the team down in that match, in what was not a great environment in which to play given the controversy his selection caused.
Philander will retire after the series against England, and bring the curtain down on one of the great careers, particularly in the Test arena. “You get to a stage where you have to make a decision. I’ve had a wonderful career,” he said Monday.
"He has really done himself and his family proud and I hope he can finish his final series for South Africa with the same character and flair that has become synonymous with him." - Graeme Smith@VDP_24#BigVernRetirespic.twitter.com/MDz625b4dn
“Personally I’ve done what I wanted to.I was part of the no.1 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 back up on the graph again.”
Philander International career:
Tests: 60.Batting: 1619 runs, 8x50, Highest Score - 74, Average 24.16. Bowling: 216 wickets, 2x10fer, 13x 5fer, Best Bowling (innings): 6/21, Best bowling (match): 10/102, Ave: 22.16