Big Vern as he is fondly called, Vernon Philander lit up Lord’s with a typically nagging spell in the morning session of the first Test between South Africa and England. Having suffered an ankle injury since arriving in England, Philander was a doubtful starter for the opening Test. He not only overcame the injury but also had England on the mat early on after the hosts opted to bat first on a good looking Lord’s strip.
If Morne Morkel with the new ball looked lethal, Philander started with two no balls in his opening over. But it wasn’t a sign of things to come from the Big Vern. He shook off the rust in the initial six balls before he resorted to what he does best – seam the ball around. With a perfect seam position and impeccable control, Philander had Alastair Cook and his young partner and fellow South African, Keaton Jennings fishing outside the off-stump.
The thing with Philander is that you never know which way it is going to seam. With the movement just the right amount to induce edges, Philander is always in business. He doesn’t need the bounce of Morkel, the pace of Rabada or the swing of Dale Steyn. All he needs is that subtle movement off the track that forces batsmen to make mistakes. He thrives on stump to stump lines and a brand new, red cherry. The method behind his madness brought him 50 Test wickets in his seventh Test, a remarkable feat for a medium-pacer.
His words in The Cricket Monthly during an interview sums up his methods.
“For me, it’s all about timing when to strike because I’ll hold, hold, hold, hold and then (clicks his fingers), I’ll decide that it’s time. You need to try and sense the perfect opportunity to do that, and then be able to deliver that one specific ball. You might have one specific delivery with which you can get a batsman out, so you need to be able to produce it at the right time. That’s the key: to make sure that you know that you have this in your skill set, you’re going to set him up, and then when the time arises, you have to nail it. Because we all know that once a batter is in and the ball gets older, it’s a batsman’s game.”
It always looked like a Philander-morning when Lord’s woke up to a moisture-laden pitch that Elgar deemed would help the South African seamers. The stand-in skipper’s words stood true as Vernon Philander and Morne Morkel looked in lethal form with the new ball.
The big wickets
After the two no-ball over, Philander started his second over by dismissing the former England skipper, Alastair Cook. The southpaw, bamboozled by the medium pacer’s movement, played an uncharacteristic shot away from his body, only to edge behind to Quinton de Kock and gift Philander the first of his breakthroughs in the morning session.
If Cook looked uncomfortable, Jennings was shell shocked by the Proteas seamers. He struggled against Morkel’s bounce and Philander’s movement. He was even more wide-eyed and blank when a Philander delivery rapped him on the pads and the umpire raised his dreaded finger. Gary Ballance, always a debated name in England’s Test line-up, seemed convinced that Jennings was out but replays revealed that the ball was neither pitching in line nor hitting the stumps. Given the way the Big Vern was roaring in, it was little surprise that Jennings did not want to be out there in the middle. He ended his opening spell with figures of 5-1-17-2.
After Morkel had outsmarted Gary Ballance with a full ball, England were 49/3 and begging at the mercy of their new skipper. Root answered the call, helped by some sloppy South African fielding. He had the reliable Johnny Bairstow at the other end. Surely, England would come out of trouble with this pair. After all, they were the first and second highest run-scorers of 2016 in Test cricket.
Not today, said Vernon Philander, as he returned to nip out the England keeper with an absolute peach. The ball pushed on good length nipped back and caught Bairstow on the move, rapping him plumb in front of the stumps. England did not even bother reviewing the decision.
The changearound and how the match progressed
Such was Philander’s opening spell that England were eagerly waiting for Maharaj to come into the attack. When he did arrive, they greeted him with aplomb and the move paid off. From there the game took a dramatic change around as Root and Stokes counter-attacked with purpose.
As the ball lost its sheen and Root looked ominous at the wicket, Philander failed to find the same rewards off the surface. Although he was easily the best bowler on show, Root was batting on a different planet and seeing the ball like the largest moon in the entire Solar System. He went on to compile the highest score by an Englishman on his captaincy debut while Ben Stokes and Moeen Ali played the perfect sidekick. What had started out as South Africa’s day turned into England’s with them ending on 357/5 at stumps.