Vernon Philander will retire at the end of the forthcoming England series, having claimed more than 200 Test wickets in an eight-year career. However, his very best form came right at the start for South Africa, when he racked up a remarkable nine five-wicket hauls in his first 15 Tests…
Test No. 1 – 5 for 15 v Australia, Cape Town
The original crazy Cape Town day. Philander had been waiting for more than four years to upgrade an abortive ODI career into a maiden Test cap, but when his chance finally came on his home ground at Newlands, he wasted little time to display the skills for which he would become renowned. Proud seam, full length, deadly nip to offset an apparently innocuous pace. With South Africa on the ropes after being bundled for 96, Philander roared to recognition with 5 for 15 in seven overs, routing Australia for 47 (and at one stage 21 for 9 after 11.4 overs) on a day when 23 wickets tumbled.
Test No. 2 – 5 for 70 v Australia, Johannesburg
One week later, and now with a series lead to defend, Philander was at it again – a lone resistor at the Wanderers as a chastened Australia set out their stall to chase a stiff 310. Three times in the innings, he seemed to have ripped the guts out of Michael Clarke’s men, first when bagging both openers in the space of 11 balls, including Shane Watson for a second-ball duck, then when Clarke himself was bowled by a massive inducker to rock Australia’s partial recovery, and finally when Brad Haddin nibbled to the keeper to end a fighting fifty that had nudged his side in front. From 292 for 8, however, Mitchell Johnson and an 18-year-old Pat Cummins refused to yield.
Test No. 3 – 5 for 53 & 5 for 49 v Sri Lanka, Centurion
The first ten-for – and true to his fast-developing habit, Philander made it an even split of five and five to send Sri Lanka packing at Centurion. His first wicket of the match was Kumar Sangakkara for a three-ball 1, and epitomised the threat that was able to pose when conditions were even remotely in his favour. More nip from a devilishly full length, and a front foot-committed batsman had nowhere to hide as the ball lobbed to slip. Sri Lanka folded for 180 and 150, either side of a perfectly adequate total of 411, in which AB de Villiers’ 99 was the mainstay.
Test No. 6 – 6 for 44 v New Zealand, Hamilton
All this home Test success was all very well, but could Philander replicate his threat outside of South African conditions? Happily for him, his first port of call, in March 2012, was the green and pleasant land of New Zealand, a place that rarely hesitates to favour those of a nagging seam-and-swing persuasion. After five more wickets in the drawn Dunedin Test (albeit across two innings this time), Philander found his range to devastating effect in Hamilton, scalping a nine-wicket win with ten more for the match, including a career-best 6 for 44 in the second innings (although to call it a “career” after six matches was pushing it a touch). “You again,” he said to the now-familiar faces in the South Africa media pack as he wandered into the press conference after his third Man-of-the-Match award.
Test No. 7 – 6 for 81 v New Zealand, Wellington
The match award this time went to the lanky wrecking-ball that is Morne Morkel, who broke Ross Taylor’s arm in the first innings in a terrifying display of angular fast-and-nasty bowling that, coupled with Dale Steyn’s unchallenged status as the world’s No.1 fast bowler, confirmed that South Africa’s seam attack was now the most potent in the world. But Philander, on the face of it a rest cure, proved anything but in picking off a second-consecutive six-for – and in the process reaching his landmark of 50 Test wickets in just seven matches, the fastest for 116 years. “Bowling form is like batting form,” he said afterwards. “If things go for you, make sure you keep doing it.”
Test No. 10 – 5 for 30 v South Africa, Lord’s
Another Man-of-the-Match display – Philander’s fourth in ten Tests – and this time it was arguably as much for his under-rated batting as for his distinctively nagging line, length and nip. In a match played on a curiously patchy Lord’s outfield – the legacy of the recent archery events at the London Olympics – and overshadowed by Kevin Pietersen’s banishment in the wake of the text-gate affair, Philander’s twin innings of 61 and 35 were critical factors in a tightly-fought 51-run win. However, it was his second-innings 5 for 30 – including three in his first nine overs – that set South Africa firmly on course for the coveted World No.1 ranking.
Test No. 13 – 5 for 7 v New Zealand, Cape Town
Another visit to Philander’s Newlands home ground, two years on from that display against Australia. And lo and behold, another crushing display of line, length and movement proved far too much for a browbeaten New Zealand team. Within five overs, Philander had bagged five wickets; within 20, New Zealand were 45 all out. “The spell we saw from Philander was as good a spell as you’re ever likely to see in Test cricket,” said Brendon McCullum, New Zealand’s. “He never missed his length and asked questions defensively. In terms of defending his stumps, he also managed to get the odd ball to kiss away.”
Test No. 15 – 5 for 59 v Pakistan, Cape Town
By the end of Philander’s fourth Test at Newlands, he had racked up 30 wickets at 12.00. But this match – unlike his previous Cape Town cakewalks – was far more of an arm-wrestle. Despite racking up his ninth five-for in 15 Tests with 5 for 59 in the first innings, a brace of centuries from Younis Khan and Asad Shafiq had confirmed that Pakistan would not be a pushover. Sure enough they secured a 12-run lead, and that might well have been enough to set up a famous win, had Philander’s 4 for 40 in the second innings not set in motion a match-defining collapse.