Exactly two weeks ago, Vernon Philander was the toast of the South African attack after he completed a career-best 6 for 42 in the series-opening win over India. But two days after that, Philander’s performance was all but forgotten as Kagiso Rabada become the world’s top-ranked Test bowler. And in the last few days, both Philander and Rabada have taken a back seat after Lungi Ngidi announced himself with 6 for 39 on debut and won hearts and minds with his heartwarming backstory.
If Philander was younger and less experienced, he might have been affected by how quickly attention can be lavished on a player and how quickly it can be taken away, but, as he approaches his 50th Test, Philander has become used to sharing the spotlight. Asked whether it was tough being part of a four-pronged pace pack, all of whom are stars in their own right, Philander admitted it could be, but only if he thought only about himself.
“No, I think if you can put the ego aside. We all want to be that hero at the end of the day, to put up our hand and be the Man of the Match, but not every surface is going to allow it. So it’s about being mature enough to know that your end might not be the end to strike from, and to play accordingly to make sure the other guys get the best out of their end to strike,” Philander said, ahead of the Wanderers Test.
Newlands, for example, is the ground on which Philander seems to perform best. Not only is it his home venue and, so, the place where he has played most of his cricket, but it also facilitates subtle seam movement and thus suits Philander’s style of bowling best. In places like the Highveld, where the pitches tend to have more bounce, Philander has accepted he may have to play more of a supporting role.
“Your role always differs on different surfaces. I’ve played this game long enough to understand my role in the side. In the last game I knew that I had to keep it tight from the one side and let the others strike,” he said, referring to the Centurion Test, where he only took one wicket. “It’s just to understand the role that you play. We’re four seamers and we obviously want to keep it as tight as possible and bowl them out as cheaply as possible in every cricket game. It’s about finding your role in that four-pronged attack and making sure you deliver.”
Philander even went as far as to praise the man who took all the accolades, Ngidi, who has quickly become South Africa’s newest darling. “He is an absolutely phenomenal talent. Lungi has pace and bounce, and to see the way he went about his business, the manner he stayed calm in was great,” Philander said. “Lungi asked a lot of questions to me and Morne and KG [Rabada] at mid-off or mid-on.”
Ultimately, Philander understands how crucial depth is to South African cricket, especially since he was part of recent seasons in which the talent pool appeared severely shallow amid a spate of injuries. Since 2015, South Africa’s senior seamers, Dale Steyn, Philander himself and Morne Morkel, have all spent significant time on the sidelines and in that time, Chris Morris, who has scant Test experience but is a white-ball regular, was also out of action.
In that time, South Africa rotated through several options including one-Test wonder Hardus Viljoen, Duanne Olivier, went back to Wayne Parnell and used Andile Phehlukwayo as they sought to plug the gap but none of those stuck. It was only Rabada who emerged as ever-reliable but the arrival of Ngidi bodes well for the future, and Philander knows it. “I think it’s wonderful to see we have so many bowlers in the pipeline, pumping as well. Long may it continue.”
Philander would not be drawn into whether South Africa may be tempted to play five quicks and leave out Keshav Maharaj on what should be a fire and brimstone Bullring strip, but acknowledged the spinner’s contributions to South Africa’s success. “Keshav has done a massive job – not just in this series but in past series as well. He keeps it tight and allows us to strike from the other end,” Philander said. “Look, when you come to the Wanderers, it’s generally a ground where the seamers are the attackers. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to answer your questions about playing without a spinner.”
South Africa are likely to leave their selection decision late, especially after SuperSport Park turned out to be the opposite of what they expected. But even if the Wanderers throws up a surprise, it is still going to be tough for batsmen and that makes Philander’s role in the side ever-more important. He bats at No. 7 these days and has contributed scores in the 20s in this series, but expects more from himself as he grows into the role.
“I think I can do better. Conditions obviously haven’t been conducive for batting but it’s a challenge we all face up to,” he said. “You’re always going to put pressure on yourself because you always want to perform. There’s a sense of pride in what you do. When you bat at seven, you take on a greater responsibility. It’s a challenge I enjoy and hopefully I can score a lot more runs at No. 7.”