Second time lucky for Vern

It seems churlish to remember the low point of Vernon Philander’s career while he is riding the crest of one of the highest waves in the history of the sport, but perhaps it was his shambolic introduction to international cricket that has been driving him for the past four years. Perhaps it is a contributing reason for him being where he is now: on top of the world.

South Africa’s triumphant Test series victory against England had concluded on a low note with defeat at the Oval, and it was time for the one-day series at the end of an even longer-than-usual tour. It was clearly time for some fresh legs and new blood.
So selectorial minds, which should have been employed months earlier, were quickly applied to the task.

The result was that 22-year-old Philander, having neither bowled nor hit a ball in three months, was called up in August. Unsurprisingly, he looked out of condition and unimpressive.

“It was the middle of winter and I was a lot younger than I am now. Of course, I wasn’t training as hard as I would before and during the season. I wasn’t as prepared as I would have liked to be,” he says philosophically. He prefers not to say whether he was disappointed about the way it was handled.

Still, the boy who grew up playing street cricket in Ravensmead had already shown just how far he had come. His mother worked in a toll booth (but has since become manager of parking at Cape Town International Airport), and his father was a “council manager”.

‘Lazy’ cricketer
Philander’s debut quickly gave rise to talk of him being a “reluctant trainer”—a polite way of saying “lazy”. He bristles with indignation at the suggestion—but does acknowledge that his attitude towards fitness is different now.

“Those were unfair comments. I never skipped training. But obviously it’s different now. The fitness trainers make sure it’s a big part of your game and at international level there is nowhere to hide, so I’m prepared to do whatever I have to do. I enjoy it, actually,” Philander says.

But aerobic fitness and strength are only a part of it. What about the remarkable skills he possesses as a bowler—movement off the pitch and the ability to swing the ball both ways, including the “art” of reverse swing? “My attitude has also changed towards playing the game, not just towards fitness. I don’t just play it for the sake of playing any more, or for the love of it.”

What—so is there less love for the game now? “No! I just mean I’m more prepared now: I think about the opposition and I do my homework. I have an idea where each batsman is going to try and score off me and where I want to try and bowl the ball,” Philander says.

It’s fair to say that he used to run up and “just bowl”, confident that his ability to land the ball on the seam whenever he wanted to would be sufficient to take regular first-class wickets. And it was—more than 250 of them at an average of 20.2 before he was finally called into the Test team. It was the best average of any current player in the world with more than 200 first-class wickets.

Not fazed by Test cricket
As with all debutants, he was expected to find the step up to Test cricket a little harder going than life at domestic level—or much harder going. Instead, as he was due to step out at the Basin Reserve on Thursday, he boasted a career first-class haul of 307 at an even lower average of 18.91. During this season alone, including his 45 Test wickets, his haul is 72 at a cost of 15.75 runs each.

The fact that he played in a few SuperSport Series matches for the Cobras (and took a pile of wickets) while everyone else rested before the tour to New Zealand says as much about his view of his own form as it does about his attitude to fitness and hard work. For instance, he did not enter the Indian Premier League auction but will instead be starting life as an overseas professional with English county Somerset at the end of April.

“The IPL is all about money and fame and glamour, but what does it do for your cricket? I don’t know what it might do to mine. We have a tour of England coming up in July and it’s like a world championship, so I want to be as prepared as possible for that.

“I want to bowl a lot of overs in English conditions and hopefully keep taking wickets,” he says.

But what about pocketing an instant reward for his stunning rise to international stardom? How about some cash in the bank? Is that not the way it is supposed to happen these days? Just look at batsman Richard Levi.

“Maybe — I’m not saying I don’t want an IPL contract one day. I was chuffed for Richard; he has great ‘presence’ at the crease and is
a phenomenal short-format player, especially with the one-bouncer rule.

“But I’m just doing what I know is the right thing for me at the moment, and hopefully for South African cricket. Tests are still the most important form of the game and being number one would be the ultimate for all the guys.”

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