Vernon Philander devastated the Australian batting lineup at Johannesburg.
Vernon Philander pulled Nathan Lyon’s slower short ball for a single to bring South Africa’s lead to a massive 600 runs. It was the fourth day of the final Test at the Wanderers but still, there was no declaration from the hosts. After a while, the reason was revealed on the social media. Apparently, Kagiso Rabada had a stiff back, Morne Morkel had a side strain and Philander had a strapped groin. South Africa left the Australians clueless of their strategy and the innings was brought to an end after the 105th over.
An unnerve Australian line-up were set a target of 612 runs to square the four-Test series 2-2, something which looked impossible. It was clear that Australia’s cricketers were not in the best of mindset, following the sandpaper gate, and it was a golden opportunity for the Proteas to clinch a historic series win against these opponents at home. When the South Africans took field in the final innings, there were injuries, there was pressure to give a memorable farewell to Morne Morkel, who was stepping away from international cricket after having served South Africa for 12 long years and then there was the bitter fact of never been able to beat Australia in a Test series at home since 1970.
A few months back when India had toured South Africa, Philander had made a statement about how their pacers must keep their egos aside and should work as a unit. There are days when the only pacer leads the entire pack and others have to play second fiddle. “It’s all about understanding the role that you play within the attack. We are four seamers, so we want to keep it as tight as possible and bowl them out as cheaply as possible. It’s about finding your role in the four-pronged attack and making sure you deliver what is required of you. You have to put your ego aside, we all want to be the hero at the end of the day,” Philander had said.
Now that Philander, Morkel and Rabada were all not fully fit, they luckily had left-arm orthodox spinner Keshav Maharaj, who was delivering the perfect art of spin on the other end. He was handed the ball for the first time, on day four, in the 10th over. He made a breakthrough in his very fifth over by trapping Usman Khawaja LBW before Morkel had removed Matt Renshaw a few overs earlier. He took the charge for seven consecutive overs from one end, was given a break for over two overs before Faf du Plessis brought him back into the attack. As soon as he completed his 10th over of the day, umpires called it stumps on Day four.
However, the roles would change on the final day. It would be a matter of 17 overs on the fifth day for the hosts to bundle the Australians out and slap them with their second biggest loss in Test cricket, in terms of runs.
The Proteas commenced Day five by giving an emotional guard of honour to Morkel. The Australians stood up in the dressing room applauding for the tall man, who was wearing a wide smile. The South Africans hurdled up for the final words from the skipper before Philander is given the ball to bowl the opening over of the day. A few seconds later, he had his first wicket of the innings. Philander missed on the length but Shaun Marsh froze at the crease only to get an inside edge onto his pad. The ball lobbed to Temba Bavuma at the gully, who made no mistake.
From there on, Philander continued to strike 125Km/hr in the final morning. That brought back memories of his Test debut, coincidently against the same opposition, seven years back at Cape Town.
Two deliveries later, he had Marsh Jr too and that dismissal took him to the 200 club of Test wickets. Only five other bowlers had a better average when they had reached the 200-wicket mark and that spoke volumes of Philander’s talent. While Philander was the seventh South African bowler with 200 Test wickets, he was the fourth fastest to the landmark among his countrymen.
He went wicket-less in his next over before he removed Peter Handscomb in his next over and what a dismissal that was. He struck the perfect length, Handscomb was not certain if he should play or leave it. However, he was too late to make a call, an inside edge crashed into his stump, and Handscomb became Philander’s 50th Australian Test wicket. Philander would go on to bag two more wickets to finish with an exceptional figure of 6 for 21 in 13 overs.
On the final morning, the Proteas needed only 17 overs, out of which eight were Philander’s, to bowl out Australians, who managed to add only 36 runs to their overnight score of 83.
This spell has sent out a red-flagged message to all the opponents of Philander’s comeback. In January, Philander destroyed a classy Indian batting-line up his nine-wicket haul at Cape Town and in the next few months, he would lose his mojo. Prior to the Wanderers Test, Philander bowled 164.1 overs across five Tests and picked up just 13 wickets at a strike rate of 75.7. But, there was no way, the senior player, who has played 50-plus Tests for South Africa now, would give up easily.
“For me, it’s all about the 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,” Philander once said in an interview. Despite Wanderers did not favour his strengths, he stuck to his basics. Luckily for him, he ended as the Player of the Match with career-best figures of 6 for 21, which also helped South Africa finally beat their arch-rivals (Australia) in a Test series at home since their re-admission in Test cricket.