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South Africa find balance via ‘The new Kallis’

CricketSouth Africa find balance via 'The new Kallis'

After 45 Test matches, Vernon Philander stands up to the statistical definition of an allrounder: he averages more with the bat (26) than he does with the ball (22). But his teammates in the South African dressing room have even higher expectations of the 32-year-old. “He is becoming the new Jacques Kallis the way he is batting,” Faf du Plessis quipped after South Africa had wrapped up a 340-run win over England on Monday (July 17) in the second Test.

Philander’s 96 runs in the match went a long way to setting up that victory, but they also took his tally for the series to 167 runs in four innings at an average of 55.66. Already it is his highest aggregate for a series, beating the 136 that he scored in Australia last year, confirming not only that his batting is constantly improving but also that his runs come when they are needed most.

Philander delivered with both bat and ball in South Africa's resounding win.

Du Plessis said that the Kallis joke had to do with Philander’s technique mirroring that of the former allrounder’s. Philander naturally rubbished the notion, but regardless of how his runs come he is doing something that South Africa have yearned for since Kallis’ retirement: balance the side.

The Trent Bridge match was just the third time in 32 Tests since Kallis walked away that South Africa have picked five bowlers. On the previous two occasions – against Australia at Centurion in 2014 and India at Mohali in 2015 – they were bowled out cheaply in both innings and lost. Otherwise, they have opted for the security of runs over the adventure of an extra bowler. Until now.

South Africa went into the first Test at Lord’s with their usual seven-five split between the batsmen and bowlers, and found themselves relying on Theunis de Bruyn and Temba Bavuma – who almost never bowl in domestic cricket – for 10 overs in the first innings. It meant the intensity that du Plessis likes South Africa to play with for sustained periods often dropped off – particularly as he wasn’t around to keep the senior bowlers on their toes. Philander’s lack of bowling fitness did not help either.

Coming to Nottingham 1-0 down, the conservative approach – which is the one South Africa most often take – was to retain de Bruyn but du Plessis opted instead for Chris Morris. As a result, Philander moved up a place to bat at No. 7.

“For me the most important thing in this game was that he had a new challenge on his shoulders,” du Plessis said of Philander. “We left a batsmen out to play two allrounders and with that comes extra responsibility. We gave him the promotion to 7 because I back his technique and his batting and he responded beautifully by getting crucial runs for us.”

With Philander hitting 54 and Morris contributing 36 in a partnership of 74, the Proteas were able to add 100 runs for the last six wickets in the first innings. In the second, Philander’s 42 helped them move from 275 for six to 343 for nine declared in the space of just 10 overs to set up the game.

Of course, to make the new selection tactic worthwhile, South Africa still needed Morris to contribute with the ball. At lunch on the second day, that was looking questionable until du Plessis saw that his bowler’s head was spinning and told him to just bowl fast. “Vern also said we should just trust him and give him an opportunity,” revealed du Plessis. Morris went on to take 5 for 45 in the match, including England’s two best batsman in the second innings.

“The way Chris bowled after that (discussion) was exceptional. His control surprised me,” said du Plessis. “We know he is an X-factor bowler, so to see now that he has some consistency creeping in is huge for us. That adds to our X-factor as a team now that we have four very high-quality seam bowlers. ‘KG’ (Kagiso Rabada) will be coming back the next Test and that makes the attack even stronger. The runs were also important – to see that Chris can bat and score runs. If you’re leaving out a batsman, both of the allrounders need to contribute and they did that. The first innings the partnership they had was a matchwinning one.”

Philander’s bowling should not be forgotten either. While much was rightly made of James Anderson’s skill with the swinging ball, Philander was at least his equal in this Test as he moved the ball both ways and took five wickets. All five were against left-handers, and while that could be put down to the fact that England had no fewer than seven of them in their lineup, it is also because of Philander’s technique.

Despite bowling over the wicket, it was rare for him to pitch the ball outside leg stump – The Cricket Prof confirmed that 30 of his first 36 deliveries in the second innings pitched in line with the wickets. They added that in Philander’s career, only around 12% of deliveries to left-handers from over the wicket have pitched outside leg stump. It may seem a trivial statistic but it means that lbw is always a possibility – especially with his ability to jag the ball back in.

“With the moving ball here it’s difficult because you can’t just leave me, with the odd one nipping back,” said Philander. “I’m looking to attack off-stump consistently and that makes life difficult for those left-handers.”

Life is unlikely to get easier for England’s batsmen in the remaining two Tests, what with Rabada set to return from suspension at The Oval. He will replace Duanne Olivier, who was largely ineffectual – perhaps understandably given how little cricket he has played in recent months. Rabada will add fresh menace to this new four-man attack, while the ‘new Kallis’ expects to find another gear as well.

“Going into that Lord’s Test I was probably a bit undercooked,” said Philander. “I had a chat with the higher powers but they wanted me to play. I had just got back from an ankle injury and literally bowled that week before the Test match. I found my rhythm in this match. Hopefully I’ll be a bigger threat for the last two.”

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