If Vernon Philander could do The Oval Test all over again, he would. And he would do it feeling the way he does now because that is infinitely better than the way he felt last week.
Philander spent most of the third Test in the toilet, “losing quite a lot of fluids, top and bottom”. The same could be said of South Africa’s performance.
The top order was guilty of not posting enough runs, especially in the first innings, and the bowling lacked the discipline required to contain England. Philander’s all-round ability was missed and he knew it. “In any bowling line-up, if there’s a link missing, you feel it and I’m quite an important part in that line-up,” Philander said. “I could feel my intensity was missed.”
Don’t read that as a man talking himself up, read it as an international sportsperson speaking from a place of professionalism. Philander was picked to play – and the merits of including someone who was obviously ill have already been discussed on these pages – so that is what he wanted to do.
He fronted up on the first morning and took the new ball even though South Africa’s initial hope was that they would bat first and he would have some extra time to recover. That day, Philander bowled 12 overs; in the innings, he bowled 17; and in the match, 32, which amounted to 17.4% of the total overs South Africa sent down. It cannot be a coincidence that at Lord’s, where Philander was coming back from an ankle injury sustained in a county stint and where South Africa also lost, he only bowled 13% of the total overs whereas at Trent Bridge, where Philander was Man of the Match, he delivered 23.9%, almost a quarter.
Perhaps the more telling impact of Philander’s absence was that the most he could provide in a single spell at The Oval was five overs. While he could create pressure early on, he was unable to sustain it and neither was anyone else in the attack despite tailor-made conditions. Under thick cloud and in humidity, Morne Morkel turned in one of his best performances for little reward but Kagiso Rabada struggled for rhythm and Chris Morris with inconsistency. All Philander wanted to do was get better enough to get in on the action. “It was frustrating not to be out there or to bowl longer spells,” he said.
It was even more frustrating watching the chance to win the series slip past South Africa, especially as Philander knows what victory in England tastes like. He is one of only three members of the current squad who played in the 2012 matches and took the Test mace off England at Lord’s. Philander had one of the most important hands in that victory after scoring fifty and taking a five-for. Then, a South Africa side that shone with superstars like Graeme Smith, Jacques Kallis, AB de Villiers and Dale Steyn may not have realised how much they relied on Philander. Now, they know exactly how much they do. It is more than they should be comfortable with because, as demonstrated last week, if Philander is unavailable, South Africa need to have other options.
It may be something that comes up in their team talks, which Philander explained involved severe self-reflection. “We’ve had a few hard chats,” he said. “We have an honesty policy and we all admitted it wasn’t our best Test match. We let ourselves down with the bat in the first innings and that’s something we would like to correct.”
Philander will have a role to play in that regard because he has been promoted to No. 7 and, now that he is healthier, he can show why he has long wanted to bat higher up. “I think No. 7 is ideal for me. I enjoy having to bat longer periods,” he said. But his main role will remain with the ball in hand.
With heavy cloud hanging over Manchester, rain in the week prior to the team’s arrival in the city hampering pitch preparation and drizzle expected throughout the final Test, Philander may get the chance to do at Old Trafford what he would have done at The Oval. And this time, he thinks, “there’s everything to play for”.