Vernon Philander talks about the method behind his method, the rewards of four-day cricket, and the best batsmen he has bowled at
When Vernon Philander was called up to South Africa's Test squad in 2011, his selection was met with dismay by those who had not followed his recent exploits in domestic cricket and remembered only his disappointing stint in the limited-overs sides in 2007 and 2008. Philander transformed those perceptions in record time, shooting to 50 wickets in seven Tests - the best since 1896. Subsequently he became the quickest South African to 100 Test wickets and the No. 1-ranked Test bowler in the world.
Talk us through your Test debut, against Australia at Newlands in 2011.
Leading up to the Test match I started asking questions to myself about whether I was going to be good enough. I had doubted whether I was going to get the chance to play international cricket again, so there was a real mix of emotions. But I was probably the most prepared I could have been, having played three years of proper four-day cricket. From a mental point of view I was maybe a bit between two worlds at that stage. Once I bowled that first over I knew what I was capable of doing. My first spell was a very nervy spell because I was going from playing four-day cricket in front of empty stadiums to bowling in front of a full house at Newlands. But after that first spell I felt at home, probably because of the work that I'd done beforehand.
After taking 5 for 15 in the second innings, bowling out Australia for 47, you must have felt like you belonged at that level.
For us it was just about trying to get back in the game and trying to restrict Australia to as low a score as possible. Forty-seven is obviously a dream score to be bowling the opposition out for so we would have taken that! Things happened pretty quickly that afternoon. It was something you only dream of happening on debut.
I'd been doing it week in and week out at provincial level before that, so I knew that I just had to get myself started, find my feet and then get going. I think in the second innings I was more at home - in the first innings there were more nerves. Playing at Newlands was also a bonus for me because I know the Newlands track.
"Pushing guys in at the age of 20 or 21 is probably a bit early if you're not going to nurture them properly. It woke me up and opened my eyes"
You mention that you'd been doing it for the Cape Cobras for three years before that. What did you learn in those days outside the international team?
I had one or two good series before I got picked for the limited-overs side and that's by no means enough cricket to be playing internationals as far as I'm concerned. I think you need to find the way that you want to play your game and how you want to construct your game. The most difficult thing is to work out how you want to be going about your game, and those years taught me how to construct my innings when I'm bowling and when I'm batting.
Your initial spell in the limited-overs side - what was the hardest part about it?
I think the hardest part for me was, I never really had communication from the coach's side as to where I fitted in. I pretty much rocked up and played cricket. Sometimes that's not the worst thing, but if you don't know what your role is and what's expected of you, it can be difficult. It was obviously a good learning curve. It woke me up and opened my eyes, and as a result you probably have a better cricketer now than what you would have had without it.
But pushing guys in at the age of 20 or 21 is probably a bit early if you're not going to nurture them properly, and that's what happened to me. I got thrown out there. If I had been managed a bit better maybe I could have been in the set-up the whole time. But unfortunately - or maybe fortunately - that wasn't the case. I had to go and work out my game, but cricket is a challenge and that's what we live for every day.
You shot to 50 Test wickets in seven Tests. What would you put that early success down to?
I think mentally I was a little bit off, but just knowing that you've put in the hard yards, no one can ever give that to you. You know, like when you go into an exam and you know you've studied. That was pretty much the case for me where I'd done my homework and I was ready for my exam.
"I say to myself that I have four spells to work with during the day. If I can strike in my first spell then I'm
© Getty Images
"I say to myself that I have four spells to work with during the day. If I can strike in my first spell then I'm © Getty Images
Obviously your wicket-taking rate has slowed down in the last year or two but you're still above average levels.
Sometimes things happen quickly, and then it evens out a bit, but that's a part of sport. You're not always going to be the match-winner and walk away with five-fors and ten-fors, but I'm still contributing, which is important to the team. For me, I just need to find a balance. I've slowed down with the ball but I've picked up with the bat again.
Tell us about some dismissals that stand out in your mind. Can you recall any special ones, say in terms of setting up the batsman?
I can't really. I'm a pretty simple guy. I set up batters pretty much the same. 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.
So you're not looking to bowl the perfect ball every delivery?
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. But there are different strategies for different times and different wickets that you play on. Sometimes the wickets are so good that guys actually want to face the new ball. Then you need to change and go slightly wider and try to hold the game, and then maybe try to attack with reverse swing.
I like to break it down and say to myself that I have four spells to work with during the day. If I can strike in my first spell then I'm obviously A for "away". But sometimes when you don't strike in your first spell then you've got to come back, and you've got to work out how to go about that.
"My style of bowling suits the new ball more than Morne's. That's why I take it more often than him"
To what extent does video analysis come into play?
Guys get exposed - their weak points get exposed. Now it's as easy as jumping onto your laptop and looking at a couple of clips and you can see exactly where a batsman's weak point is. So we've got all of that info with us, but what we do with it is another thing. I think sometimes we can work out a batsman's weak points, but we don't know what he's been working on in the interim. That's what makes this game so beautiful. We might work on getting someone out lbw, but in the months leading up to a series he might have worked on the straighter ball. So suddenly you're leaking runs and scratching your head. It's a great game.
Your video analyst, Prasanna Agoram, prepares a mind-boggling amount of data for you guys. How do you pin it all down?
If you're going to listen to Prasanna, you're not going to be able to play cricket anymore! (Laughs) Sometimes it's mindblowing how many stats are produced.
Did you always naturally manage to keep a nice, straight seam, or is it something that you had to be coached into doing?
I could always swing the ball nicely. As far as hitting the seam goes, it was a natural gift. Again, to control it I had to work out which line I wanted to attack. It's something that I did over those three years - work out which lines I wanted to be bowling. Once you're clear in your mind that you can execute it under pressure, that's when you feel confident about your game. You won't have any greater joy than once you've put in the hard yards and know how to execute your action.
Is there a routine you go through when it comes to pre- paring for a Test match?
Three days out from a Test match I'll have one big day, two days out I'll taper it down, and then on the next day I'll completely put my feet up. That's when I'll do my visualisation - just visualising my game. It's got nothing to do with the opposition. I know who we're facing the following day. I think where we often make the mistake is spending too much time analysing the opposition when you should be focusing on your own game. That's the way I like to prepare - in the sense that I know I'm ready for a Test match, rather than wondering whether the opposition is ready.
Philander lorded it over Australia in his first Test series with 14 wickets in two games at an average of 13.92
Philander lorded it over Australia in his first Test series with 14 wickets in two games at an average of 13.92 © AFP
Does it make a difference to you whether you take the new ball with Dale Steyn, or whether you bowl first change after Morne Morkel?
It does make a difference because I like to strike with the new ball and my style of bowling suits the new ball more than Morne's, so that's why I take it more often than him. But we're also pretty much happy with what we do, so we don't worry too much about how we get juggled at the end of the day.
Who are the three best players of seam bowling that you've come up against.
Gee, that's a tough one. I think Clarkey [Michael Clarke] has always played very well against us, so he's one. The way KP [Kevin Pietersen] plays and takes the attack to the bowlers, he doesn't hold back. So as a bowler you always feel under pressure and there are no soft balls that he's just going to let go by. You always have to be on your guard as a bowler and keep the intensity up. And I think Mike Hussey would be the other one - the way he constructs his innings. He leaves well and then he builds his knock cleverly. Those would probably be the three that have stood out during my time playing Tests.
Who is your all-time favourite bowler?
If I had to pick one it would be Glenn McGrath. He kept things simple and he didn't try and look outside of his game plan in terms of how he went about things. He was somebody that I've modelled my bowling style on.
And what is the one thing you would kill to have from any bowler in the world?
Probably a bit of pace from Dale! (Laughs) But you know, we all have our own skill sets. Dale's is obviously swinging the ball at pace, while mine is quite different to his. But we all form part of an attack and bring something different, so I'm pretty happy with what I have.
Tristan Holme is a freelance cricket writer who covers the game in South Africa and Zimbabwe
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