Big Vernon Philander has earned the right to feast at the top

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By Neil Manthorp

The suburb of Ravensmead in Parow, 20 kilometres from the centre of Cape Town, has no airs, graces or pretensions. Nothing comes for free in Ravensmead, you have to earn everything. It is not a ‘rough’ neighbourhood and remains, mercifully, mostly free from the drug gangs which plague the ‘Cape Flats’ suburbs, but there are no new cars in the driveways of the mostly single storey homes.

Comfortably its most famous and successful product from the last two decades is Vernon Philander, England’s main problem during an awkward first session yesterday. Philander has immense skill but also, thanks to his upbringing, a certain ‘street knowledge’.

His mother, Bonny, raised Vernon and his three younger siblings, Tyron, Brandon and Darryl, on her salary as a duty manager at Cape Town Airport and remembers seeing her son first playing street cricket with the older boys at the age of “about three” using a plank from a tomato crate and a shaved tennis ball.

It was the ball with which the youngster taught himself to control the swing – there were no umpires or match referees so you did whatever you could, using whatever you could find, to gain an advantage. It is remarkable how much of an understanding of the dynamics of swing street cricket gives players with an interest. By the time he graduated to a real ball, seam movement was a bonus.

His ambitions at school were to “bowl like Allan Donald, bat like Jacques Kallis, field like Herschelle Gibbs…and keep wicket like Adam Gilchrist”. He really was the ultimate all-rounder, keeping wicket at the end he wasn’t bowling from and batting in the top four.

It was, in fact, as a batting all-rounder that he first caught the attention of the Western Province selectors and he made his first few appearances at first-class level batting at number six and contributing ‘useful’ overs of medium pace rather than incisive ones. And then, one day, he was given the new ball.

You don’t have to be amongst the keenest of observers to note that Philander is not the leanest member of the Proteas team. Whilst it never precluded WP from selecting him, various coaches and selectors at national level dismissed him as “too slow and not fit enough” to be an international cricketer.

They relented under Mickey Arthur and conceded that he may have a future in the ODI game in 2007. But it wasn’t until Gary Kirsten took over as head coach that he was finally called up for a Test debut. By then he had collected over 220 first-class wickets at an average of under 21. “I wasn’t going to make a judgement before he’d been given a chance. His record demanded that he was given a chance,” Kirsten remembers.

It came against Australia at Newlands, his home ground, and was one of the more remarkable Test matches in modern history. The hosts were bowled out for 96, just avoiding the follow-on, but then dismissed Australia for 47 with Philander claiming 5-15 in seven overs and the man of the match award as South Africa stormed to victory.

His 50th wicket arrived in his seventh Test, the second fastest ever, and his 100th in his 19th, equal sixth quickest. Philander’s life was transformed within a year, as was Bonny’s who found herself lavished with expensive handbags and other luxuries that he knew she deserved. His first treat to himself was a Golf GTi, but he felt no awkwardness or attacks of self-consciousness in buying smart clothes and expensive watches. In Ravensmead you got what you deserved, and nobody knew better than Vernon Darryl Philander how many hours of toil and sweat had been spent in pursuit of success. He wasn’t going to be averse to a bit of bling now he could afford it.

A brief spell at number one in the world, taking over from new ball partner Dale Steyn in 2013, saw his star continue to rise, but the following year his ‘street credentials’ got the better of him when he was found guilty of picking the seam in desperately flat, frustrating conditions against Sri Lanka in Galle. He did not contest the charge.

But it was the injury to his ankle in Bangalore in November last year that provided the greatest test of his spirit and resilience. Back-pedalling under a high catch during a fielding drill, he stood on Dean Elgar’s foot and went down in agony. He thought he might be out for ten days, the first prognosis was eight to ten weeks. It turned out to be seven months before he was even bowling again.

“They are lonely times, you have to fight against the negative thoughts. The rehab you must do by yourself, you can’t run, I don’t like swimming and there’s only so much exercise bike a man can take. But when you’ve tasted the honey at the top of the game that’s enough to make sure you go back for more,” Philander said recently.

It has not been a simple comeback, despite his form and number of wickets suggesting all is well. When his achilles tendon was ripped off the tibia, it took with it several shards of bone, one of which remains ‘floating’ in the ankle. Every two or three deliveries it causes a sharp, sometimes searing, pain which pain-killing injections can only dull a little.

‘Big Vern’ to his fans and, affectionately,  ‘Big Show’ to his team mates, Philander was written off before he even began and has been again subsequently, but he is only just 32 and intends to be around for at least another two or three years – perhaps even for another Lord’s Test. Giving the people of Ravensmead something to feel proud about is as important to him now as it was on his international debut ten years ago.

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