Vernon Philander will leave a substantial void in South Africa’s bowling armoury when he quits the international scene after this week’s Johannesburg Test against England.
With Kagiso Rabada suspended for the final match of the series at The Wanderers, the 34-year-old finds himself leading one of the least experienced seam attacks in Test history.
Whether the Proteas opt to recall Dwaine Pretorius or hand a debut to left-armer Beuran Hendricks, the trio providing back-up to Philander can assemble fewer than 10 Test caps between them.
S Africa vs England
January 24, 2020, 7:30am
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Yet few could have forecast that Philander would end up filling so pivotal a role for his country as he prepares to make his 64th and final Test appearance, live on Sky Sports Cricket.
Surprisingly, Philander’s early experience of international cricket came in the white-ball arena – he was called up for an ODI against Ireland on his 22nd birthday and performed well, taking 4-12.
That earned him a place in South Africa’s side for the World T20 later that year on home soil, as well as a further handful of ODI caps and he went on to spend two months at Middlesex at the start of the 2008 season.
He was called up for the Proteas’ ODI series in England later that summer, but failed to make much impression in his two appearances, going wicketless and averaging more than six an over.
That would be that for Philander until his belated maiden Test call-up, at the age of 26…
Having been out of the international picture for three years, Philander’s success in domestic cricket for Cape Cobras persuaded the Test selectors to include him in the side to take on Australia on his home ground, Newlands, in November 2011.
The local boy’s impact was immediate – he finished with match figures of 8-78, including 5-15 in the second innings as Australia were blown away for just 47, their lowest total in more than a century.
Another five-for followed in the next Test at Johannesburg and the Philander express continued to gather pace with 10-wicket match hauls against Sri Lanka and New Zealand later that winter.
He collected his 50th Test wicket in only his seventh match, against the Black Caps – the second-fastest to reach that milestone in Test history after Charles Turner of Australia, in 1888.
UNDER THE RADAR
During the next six years, Philander established himself as part of a fearsome trio of South African Test seamers, operating in tandem with Morne Morkel and Dale Steyn.
While Morkel and Steyn tended to grab the headlines with their genuine pace, Philander’s chief strength was always his accuracy – a meticulous ability to keep putting the ball in the same areas and move it both ways.
That level of consistency has been reflected in Philander’s Test average – his 22 wickets to date have cost 22.29 runs apiece, surpassing the record of any other leading South African seamer bar Allan Donald.
Philander’s farewell in Johannesburg will mean all three members of that long-serving pace attack have quit the Test scene within the last two years.
Philander reached the top slot in the ICC Test rankings in 2013 – a year that he began with an extraordinary performance back at Cape Town, finishing with 5-7 to dismiss New Zealand for only 45.
That magnificent effort highlighted two of the traits that have helped to make Philander indispensable to his country during his Test career – first, a habit of rolling opponents over for low totals.
Just as importantly, ‘Big Vern’ has proved to be particularly lethal with the new ball. His five wickets in that Cape Town Test were the first five to fall, leaving New Zealand in tatters at 27-5 before Morkel and Steyn cleaned up the tail.
Philander claimed the scalp of Alastair Cook no fewer than five times in Test matches and, as England discovered at Centurion earlier in the series, he has lost none of his ability to punch holes in the top order.
Although Philander is quitting Test cricket, English batsmen will not be able to relax just yet – he has signed a Kolpak deal to play for Somerset, beginning this summer.
He had a previous spell at Taunton as an overseas player during the 2012 season and has since also featured in county cricket for Kent, Nottinghamshire and Sussex.
The Proteas’ loss should prove to be Somerset’s gain, with Philander’s arrival continuing the recent drain of talent from South Africa’s Test team to county cricket.