“Though Pujara and to an extent, Virat Kohli, got away, Philander’s outrageous opening spell – an exhibition of seam and swing in itself – was pivotal in South Africa’s disciplined bowling performance on day 1 of the third Test”.
Champion players stand up and deliver when it matters. It was his 50th Test match and India had won the toss and opted to bat first on a pitch that was famous for assisting the team batting first. But few know the Bull Ring as well as the South Africans. Even fewer know how important the conditions can be in this part of the World. One man, though, knows exactly what he needs to do on every surface – Vernon Philander.
The Johannesburg wicket is known for pace, bounce and carry. It does not really favour seam or swing. Philander’s primary weapon isn’t pace or bounce; it is subtle to extravagant movement off the deck combined with swing. In short, the Wanderers isn’t Philander’s cup of tea…usually.
Day 1 of the third Test against India was different. There had been overnight rains and overcast conditions were still prevalent when the Indian skipper opted to bite the bullet and bat first against a five-man pace attack. It was a bullish decision, one that Virat Kohli was expected to take. But with an extra seamer in his armoury and South Africa’s batting a tad vulnerable, he definitely missed a trick.
South African were going to make him pay for his mistake. Philander was going to make him pay for his mistake.
In his 50th Test match, Vernon Philander, steamed in, bowled in the mid-120s and seamed the ball in and out effortlessly under the cloudy sky. He comforted Lokesh Rahul with six balls moving away from him and then off the first ball of his next over, he brought one back into the opener and found the inside edge.
“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”, Philander had once expressed in an interview about his approach in Test cricket.
Watching him run in at the Wanderers, you couldn’t help but think that South Africa’s pace gun had a plan against every single batsman. He hit a tidy length, stuck to similar lines and kept seaming the ball either way.
Cheteshwar Pujara played a missed nearly half of the balls he faced from Philander. But it didn’t matter from India’s perspective. Any other batsman facing Philander in that first spell would have gifted his wicket within three to four balls. Pujara survived.
This was a master at work, well in control of proceedings and knowing exactly when to apply the “click”.
Philander’s first eight overs went for just one run, included seven maidens and umpteen plays and misses. On a wicket where bowling full was the norm, Philander was shorter. But with his skiddy ball, and medium pace, anything fuller would have been drivable.
“I’ve got a different mindset when I’m bowling with the new ball, because when I’m bowling with the new ball I’m wanting to get batters out. If it means making them to play more often then so be it – that’s why I always go for a couple more runs in my first spell than I will for the rest of the day. It’s simply because I’m looking to strike”, Philander speaks of how he utilises the new ball.
At the Bull Ring on Wednesday, though, he barely gave away anything. There was hardly a single loose ball on offer and the sole run taken off him had come off one that was slightly leg-sidish. Apart from that, he nearly bowled 47 perfect deliveries with the new ball. Later he would go on to dismiss Ajinkya Rahane off a no-ball, a minor glitch in his otherwise spotless performance in the innings. But it really was his initial burst that landed India in trouble.
At the end of his opening spell, India were 20/2 in 16 overs and the decision to bat first suddenly appeared extremely stupid. He had not only worked over India’s top three but also pushed them onto the back-foot so much so that a template was set for the other four in the pace attack to take advantage of. Though Pujara and to an extent, Virat Kohli, got away, Philander’s outrageous opening spell – an exhibition of seam and swing in itself – was pivotal in South Africa’s disciplined bowling performance on day 1 of the third Test. But for some missed chances in the field, India wouldn’t even have gotten till 187 against this five-man relentless pace attack.