“In 48 Tests, Philander has collected 182 wickets at an average of 21.68, with a strike rate of 47.9. To put his numbers in perspective it should be noted that Ambrose’s average is 20.99, his strike rate 54.5, while McGrath’s average is 21.64 and his strike rate is 51.9. Both are all-time greats, yet Philander takes his wickets off fewer deliveries than they did. That, indeed, is something to ponder”.
6 for 42…
Vernon Philander recently captured career-best figures of 6 for 42 against India in the second innings of the recent Cape Town Test. A match haul of 9 wickets earned him the man-of-the-match award and his bowling was largely responsible for South Africa winning the first Test of the series.
It was a highly capable performance that emphasized his status as one of the games foremost fast bowlers. Yet even he would agree that the Newlands wicket was not inimical to his kind of bowling.
Philander’s relentless success since gaining Test selection makes it clear that a fast bowler need not command scorching pace to reap serious rewards at that level, because the South African is certainly not express, hovering around the 130 kph mark, sometimes even slower.
He does not generate huge swing or seam either. But, he bowls with just enough pace and elicits just enough movement to make him a nuisance to even the best batsmen. Two second innings dismissals highlight his abilities: Murali Vijay is known for his excellent judgment of what to play and what to leave; he was suckered into playing at one that left him marginally and was caught behind. Virat Kohli is one of the most skilful batsmen in the game; he missed one that swung slightly at him and was out LBW.
Asked to measure the four-pronged attack that South Africa unveiled for the Cape Town Test against the famed West Indies version in which he featured, Michael Holding, in a Wisden India interview, remarked that batsmen were stepping out to Philander, something nobody would dare contemplate doing against him or any of his comrades-in-arms. And for a period, during the last stages of the game, wicketkeeper Quinton de Kock was standing up to the stumps for Philander.
A lack of pace was preferred as one of the main reasons for the lack of success of the English pacers down under during the recent Ashes series. Philander’s methods expose that claim as dubious.
This is not to say that high pace is not a welcome weapon for a fast bowler.
Yet, there are other weapons, probably not quite as hip, that is often quite effective.
Great bowlers come in different shapes and sizes and utilize different skills of the trade. The aforementioned Michael Holding bowled at foreboding pace. Others, like Malcolm Marshall and James Anderson, mastered the art of swing. Some generated huge turn — Shane Warne and Muttiah Muralitharan come to mind, while Anil Kumble, another slow-bowling great, was highly effective, though he didn’t turn the ball all that much.
But there is one attribute – accuracy — that all elite bowlers possess. It is this one attribute that enables bowlers to exploit all their other strengths, whether it is swing or seam movement, high pace, or an ability to impart substantial spin. Without accuracy, all these skills are surplus to requirements, tantamount to an army having a highly destructive projectile fired by a weapon with faulty sights. The potential for extensive damage is considerable, but you still need to hit the right target.
Bowlers like Shaun Tait and Patrick Patterson were certainly not slow, yet nobody would accord them a place in the top bracket of the game’s fast bowlers. “Fast is fine,” remarked Wyatt Earp, gunslinger and survivor of the celebrated shootout at the OK Corral, “but accuracy is everything.”
It is not an exaggeration to say that Philander may well be the most accurate bowler in recent history. This assertion might seem heretical to some, who will quickly posit names such as Glen McGrath and Curtly Ambrose. Ambrose and McGrath did impose their insistent precision on the world’s batsmen for well over a decade. But, there is little doubt that Philander has one quality – accuracy — that those two had in abundance, and is headed the same way they went.
The pacer who runs in, over after over, hits the seam, on a good length, just outside off, is likely to be rewarded. And if there is movement or irregular bounce to be had, he could well reap a bagful of wickets. The Cape Town surface, and others like it, are therefore a godsend for bowlers like Philander, bowlers with the skill to find the right areas almost every ball, allowing friendly bowling conditions to do the rest.
If this sounds easy to do, rest assured it is not. Bowling at the highest level is a difficult business to master. Nobody sprays the ball around on purpose, or pitch it incessantly too short or too full. Former fast-bowling great, Ian Bishop, revealed during a commentary stint that he swore in one game that he was pitching the ball well up to the batsman. Only to be shown by the wicketkeeper that he was pitching it somewhat shorter than he thought he was. If it were easy, everyone would do it.
In 48 Tests, Philander has collected 182 wickets at an average of 21.68, with a strike rate of 47.9. To put his numbers in perspective it should be noted that Ambrose’s average is 20.99, his strike rate 54.5, while McGrath’s average is 21.64 and his strike rate is 51.9. Both are all-time greats, yet Philander takes his wickets off fewer deliveries than they did. That, indeed, is something to ponder.
As unlikely as it might have seemed, the South African fast bowler of gentle pace is likely to become an all-time great.