McGrath Mark II

What Vernon Philander has been doing has been deceptively simple. He is not exceptionally tall or fearsomely quick, but his unbending accuracy and ability to move the ball both ways have troubled batsmen no end, writes Shreedutta Chidananda.

If Vernon Philander's pivotal contribution to the nature of his debut Test slipped somewhat under the public radar, his efforts since — it is safe to say — have been noticed rather adequately. Last November, in Cape Town, Australia's ignominious innings of 47 became the overarching story from the Test, dwarfing any sub-plots, however significant.

But nothing half-draws attention like a milestone and when, last week in Wellington, Philander bowled New Zealand's Doug Bracewell to reach 50 wickets in only his seventh Test match, his breathless rise turned into one of the more popular tales in recent times.

That wicket, as statisticians everywhere have noted with glee, made the South African the first bowler since Thomas Richardson in 1896 — and only the third in history — to reach the landmark in seven matches or fewer. “Each wicket is important. It has come at a rapid pace, but I'll take it one pole at a time,” Philander said afterwards. “Bowling form is like batting form. If things go for you, you make sure you keep doing it and that's what I'm doing.”

What Philander has been doing has been deceptively simple. He is not exceptionally tall or fearsomely quick, but his unbending accuracy and ability to move the ball both ways have troubled batsmen no end. “He has late away swing to the right-handers and a genuine in-swinger for the lbw or bowled dismissal as well as the nick off to the left-hander,” Richard Pybus, the recently-retired Cape Cobras coach, told popular cricket forum PakPassion.net. “Vernon's bowling microscope is constructed on superb control and the patience to explore and examine a batter's game, probing for errors in technique and judgement.”

All this has prompted understandable comparisons with Glenn McGrath. “Vernon's always in that area of uncertainty,” South Africa captain Graeme Smith said. “In my career, the only similar bowler was maybe a Glenn McGrath.” Indeed Philander — or Vern McGrath as they call him — seems to share the great man's ability for parsimony. His bowling average of 14.15 is a wonderful anachronism, the lowest among bowlers with more than 50 wickets since the 19th century.

It leads people to wonder if this is the same bowler they saw on ODI debut in 2007, when he looked undercooked, made a pig's ear of a couple of catches and subsequently disappeared, amid criticisms of his weight and suggestions that his elevation had more to do with other things than pure cricketing merit. This apparent lack of preparation, he argued afterwards, was simply because it was off-season and he hadn't played in three months. “It was the middle of winter and I was a lot younger than I am now,” he told South Africa's Mail & Guardian Online. “Of course, I wasn't training as hard as I would be before and during the season. I wasn't as prepared as I would have liked to be.” Philander returned to domestic cricket, toiling for two years before discovering success. He led Cape Cobras to successive four-day titles (2009-10, 2010-11), finishing with 80 wickets from the two seasons.

A Test debut at 26 may feel late but it has allowed Philander to answer anyone — and emphatically at that — who wondered if he was undeserving of the call-up. And if anybody believed that his 30 wickets from four Tests at home, on familiar, seamer-friendly wickets, flattered him, Philander dispelled those notions too in the New Zealand series. “With my skills I could bowl anywhere in the world,” he had said earlier, rather boldly. “It's something that I have practised and trained for these last three years.”

It would, of course, be silly to expect this gilded run to continue forever, and the subcontinent should offer tougher tests. But the simple foundations his craft is built on ensure Philander is unlikely to fade away anytime soon.