Not many cricketers have made an immediate impact early in their international careers; but South Africa pace bowler Vernon Philander is among the few who have bucked that trend. And, Philander has done that in some style racing to the 50-wicket mark in only his seventh Test to become the second quickest ever to reach the landmark.
Philander has got a magnificent cricket brain and is acutely aware of his strengths and sticks to them with unbelievable discipline as he gets the better of batsmen almost at will. He doesn't have the longest run-up in world cricket but his nagging line and length, consistency, getting the ball to nip back into or move away from the batsmen, and the occasional quick delivery have helped him get on top of the opposing batsmen with devastating results.
Australia's right-arm seamer Charlie 'Terror' Turner holds the record reaching the mark in only his sixth Test, way back in 1888; while England's Tom Richardson, a feared express bowler himself, took his 50th wicket in the first innings of his seventh test, in 1896. In effect, Philander has done a first in 116 years, and that's no mean achievement, especially for someone who is not an out-an-out fast bowler. He is also only the 17th bowler to achieve the feat in less than 10 tests, and only the second to do so in the last three decades - former Australia leg-spinner Stuart MacGill reached the mark in his ninth Test in 1999.
Philander is among the rare breed of bowlers who are a captain's dream for he hardly bowls bad deliveries with most of his balls asking plenty of questions of batsmen. He also has that uncanny ability to keep to a line outside the off stump and make the batsmen work hard for their runs, and their cause isn't helped by the fact that Philander hardly ever over-pitches or strays onto the pads. And, just to make the lives of opposing batsmen that much harder, Philander can not only swing the new ball but has now also mastered the skill to get reverse swing from the ball when it gets old.
It's no surprise then that South Africa Test captain Graeme Smith has said Philander reminds him of legendary Australian fast bowler Glenn McGrath. "In my career, the only person who's sort of resembled that was maybe Glenn McGrath. He was always in that area of uncertainty, and there was always something happening with the ball. He asks a lot of questions. If it's swinging a bit both ways, then Vern's always going to be right in there," Smith said of Philander. Compliments don't get any bigger or better than that!
Philander, who made his Test debut against Australia in a home series in November 2011, has so far taken 51 wickets, including six five-wicket hauls in his first seven tests at an average of 14.15 and a strike rate of 26.7. It's no surprise then that Philander has seen so much success early on in his career. And, while he may have been an unknown face on the international scene, Philander was selected to South Africa's Test team on the back of two exceptional seasons in the domestic circuit, and he successfully made the transition to the highest level in some style. He gave a glimpse of what was to come with a Man-of-the-Match performance in his debut Test where he had match figures of 8 for 78 at Cape Town - this was the Test in which Australia was skittled out for a paltry 47.
Philander is part of an outstanding South African pace bowling attack that includes the experienced Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel as well as the emerging talent of young Marchant de Lange. The variety and skill sets at Smith's disposal are bound to be the envy of captains around the world, and Philander has acknowledged the all-round brilliance of the attack lets him to do his job more easily as it gives him the freedom to stay true to his strengths. "We've got guys who can keep it tight. They keep a hold on the game and give me the chance to strike all the time and to put my skills on show. It's a special squad and a special bowling unit that we have. It's all coming together," he said.
Philander has so far played four of his Tests at home; and has only been on one away series to New Zealand where he showed he can successfully adapt to different conditions. But, greater challenges await him especially on the sub-continent and West Indies to an extent, where the pitches are not known to be pace-friendly, and he will need to be patient in those situations where he may have to work harder for his wickets.
But, based on what one has seen of Philander so far, it would be safe to say he has the discipline and ability to thrive even in unhelpful conditions; as well as to keep learning and developing as an international cricketer.