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A tribute to Vernon Philander


Vernon_Philander_South_Africa_CricketFor as long as there’ll be a discussion about Philander - and may one of South Africa’s passionate pursuers of excellence be regarded always - one would hope that the medium pacer is viewed from a larger canvass than he’s usually afforded.

One would hope that when it comes to appreciating or taking cognizance of the role of a medium pacer- a curious breed often viewed from the prism of “pace” or rather the lack of it- one accommodates space instead of constriction.

In an era where there was no dearth of lavish praise showered on a Lee to Johnson, Jerome Taylor to Joseph, Umar Gul to Malinga and compatriots Steyn to Rabada, Philander economized the discussion.

Never with the fanciness of gifted fast-bowling tearaways, but with a sense of simplicity and control.

You could say in an age that often, due to T20s, became unabashedly ‘on your face’, Philander epitomized self-preservation.

There’s little doubt then that the Proteas utilized one of their finest exponents of fast bowling in red-ball cricket, resting on this tireless pursuer in a format demanding dependability, sparing him the brevity ODIs have often sliced careers with.

Think Shaun Tait.

There’s also little surprise that Philander- putting his ‘hard-as-nails approach’ to bowling steadily- contributed with 224 wickets, in rewarding the faith of those who depended on his ‘will to persevere’ for a decade.

Say quite like the reward for a captain to bank upon a medium pacer who can be paired with a genuine quickie or a spinner.

Also, a bit like how a medium pacer hits the deck hard when most don’t foresee that much pace never-mind the keeper who’s asked to step up, right behind the stumps.

In a sport that reserves awe for ‘express pace’, could we be undermining the role of those who effect dismissals with variation and movement?

The ones who make it look easy but create doubts in the batsmen’s minds?

The ones who become a trending social-media hash-tag, if only for a day or two- #BigVern #ThankYouPhilander- upon the day of retirement, when they’ve persisted for countless hours.

And maybe that’s the thing about the medium-pacers- isn’t it?

That quite like they aren’t fully read by the batsmen they’re strangely content at not being celebrated enough.

Maybe that’s why Big Vern wouldn’t have cared much about not being bracketed in the same zone of popularity as Steyn or Morkel.

For what mattered to him was that by aligning his strengths- the ability to nibble the ball off the seam- he lent himself to becoming this massive and unputdownable South African trinity.

You take the third blade away and the trident suddenly becomes blunt.

Yet, at the same time, he wanted to do more, leading attacks especially in the post-Steyn, post-Morkel; post-2017 era, where he guided the likes of Rabada and Ngidi.

Fast bowlers hunt in pairs.

You think of McGrath and Lee.

But they become even more dismissive of batsmen. Think, in view of the above two, the name of Gillespie.

Think Ambrose. Think Walsh. What if the Windies had another who could do a bit of both in the tumultuous 90s and early 2000s?

How fortunate, it ought to be asked, were the South Africans that they had a Philander when often the game was about Steyn and Morkel or an Ntini in the era where much of the talk was about Donald and Pollock?

The Philanders don’t attract through skiddy pace. But the Philanders are the ones that create magic through movement. They do so often form the standpoint of a support system.
Often, they strike the odd boundary. Quite often they hold onto different ends. Batting. Scoring. Soldiering on.

Think England’s recent win in South Africa. And you think of 35 off 81 at Centurion and the 46 off 68.

You think of the value of the vital 27 off 61 at Port Elizabeth when runs had dried up while there were always spells like the 2 for 46 at Cape Town.

So when you think of Vernon, you expect fight and seek assurance in the ability in both departments. Could you expect runs from the Steyn-gun?

Would you have left McGrath to hold onto an end when the Pontings and Waughs were gone?

Yet, the discussion hardly expands to the lack of flair. Because Philanders personify that the game is also as much about impact.

And when you think of impact, you remember the Test at Jo’burg, 2018 where a career-best of 6 for 21 blunted the Aussies on a pitch where runs came like freely distributed candies.

You think of Philander, and you value the fifer at Lord’s just as much as the recollect that during one of Proteas’ most forgettable tours (one in India, in 2019) it weren’t de Kock, Faf, or Elgar but the mellow warrior who tired out bowlers with his 192-ball 44.

What we ought to regard about Philander is that despite not being quick akin to a Donald- on an off day at the office, he generated pace through sheer will.

Hardly were he the 140 plus guy, but always the steady 130-135 plus bloke.

You value that he was from an era where one didn’t celebrate in a loud uncouth manner. But welcomed the fall of a wicket the regular fist pumping chewing-gum celebration.

That could perhaps explain the allure of the medium pacer. That he may not promise destruction through pace. Such a predictable possibility!

But may likely succeed with breakthroughs, spell-after-spell, over-after-over resting not on speed but in the ebb of possibility.

And maybe, that’s why now that he’s gone, we may perhaps remember that it wasn’t always about backbreaking pace alone.

Just how it wasn’t about Steyn or for that Morkel, against a Watson, Marsh, Ponting, Clarke and Hussey-powered line-up at Cape Town, when in 2011, the glory behind Australia’s “47 all out” came to Vernon Darryl Philander for his 5 for 15.

It’s not always about the fire but the sparks that light up the Proteas fire.

It may never be about the one burns down the opponent like a raging inferno, but the one who strives to give his everything to brighten the fire.

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