South African new-ball bowler Vernon Philander may have only bowled six overs in his comeback Test against New Zealand in Durban last weekend, but the 31-year-old certainly did not waste the opportunity to show he remains a quality seamer at the highest level.
While Dale Steyn claimed both wickets to fall in New Zealand’s weather-ruined innings, Philander should have made the first breakthrough, but for Dean Elgar dropping a comfortable catch in the slips, and he beat the bat numerous times.
Philander had not played a Test since November 2015 in India, rolling his ankle in a customary pre-training game of football, but his skills looked undiminished and his match-fitness in place in friendly conditions at Kingsmead.
“The rhythm was good but then with a lot of cricket for me during the off-season I’ve managed to get a couple of overs under the belt. I just had to get over the mindset issues, being sure the ankle would hold up and being comfortable running and turning, which is why I went to Zimbabwe and Australia with the SA A team.
“The ankle held up well in Durban and I was pretty confident on it in the build-up, that gave me a mental edge going into the Test. It’s always a scare when these things happen, especially with the duration I was out for. I originally thought that in six weeks I’d be back on the field again and then you have to go through all that rehab, initially I maybe tried to get back too soon.
“But I’ve been able to strengthen it properly because of the time I’ve had, and I played two first-class games for the Cobras as well as the SA A matches in Zimbabwe and Australia. But I’m excited to be playing for South Africa again. It’s more of a mental struggle, you start doubting that you’ll get back into that space again, but all those supporting me have pushed me back into it,” Philander said at SuperSport Park in Centurion on Thursday.
The Proteas have crashed to number seven in the official Test rankings but Philander is confident they can start the long process back to the top by beating New Zealand in the Test starting at Centurion on Saturday and thereby claiming a series win over the fifth-ranked team.
“When you slip down the rankings, you need to try and find out why. I think we’ve had a lot of new faces and there’s been a lack of experience; there were three seamers that were pretty new to Test cricket in the Tests against England. But Dale Steyn and I bring some experience now to the attack. We’ve formed a pretty good partnership over the years and my job is just to create pressure at the other end. I hope we can continue doing that in the years to come,” Philander said.
Overall figures of 126 wickets in 33 Tests at an average of just 22.18 are the stats of a potent wicket-taker, but Philander says his focus is on the more prosaic qualities of line and length.
“Consistency of line and length, creating pressure, is at the top of my priority list. I’ll see what the nets are like and base the rest of what I do on that, but it’s early season and I’m not too sure exactly what to expect. But I’m sure there will be something in the pitch. The seam attack is certainly looking forward to playing at Centurion, we’ve had good success here in the past,” Philander said.
The patient pace bowler was able to show at Kingsmead that he is still a threat to the world’s leading batsmen, even if there will still be critics at home suggesting he should be put out to pasture.
“There will always be critics, there will always be questions about your place, but I can only control what I do,” Philander said with the air of a man set on proving his capabilities all over again.