In 2008, during an ODI against England, Vernon Philander was the villain of the day. He dropped a simple straight-forward catch and, for a long time, it was something which defined him. The gum-chewing, catch-dropping and rather average player from Cape Town’s Northern suburb of Ravensmead was dropped from the team just one game later, and he was sent back to square one.
Philander went back to domestic cricket and worked hard not only on his craft, but also on his discipline. Over two seasons, he bagged 80 scalps in first class cricket for the Cobras during 2009-10 and 2010-11. His performances on the domestic circuit earned him a call up to the national Test team last year, amidst whispers that he wouldn’t play and that, if he did, he would be a disaster.
But Philander did play. And he played well. In his first Test, he marked his return to international cricket with a bang, taking eight wickets in the match overall and a five-wicket haul in the second innings, as the Australians were left licking their wounds after being dismissed for 47. Many thought it was a fluke, but Philander continued his pristine performances with the one hand while dishing up servings of freshly baked humble pie with the other. He’s raced to 51 wickets in Test cricket, smashing records along the way and becoming the spearhead of the South African attack in the process.
There is no mystery to Philander; there’s nothing enigmatic about him. He keeps things simple, consistent and while his cheeky smile, popped collar and trademark gum chewing will easily make you believe that he’s pompous, arrogant and generally unbearable, quite the opposite is true of the unassuming 26-year old.
He speaks softly and, for all his achievements, has remained grounded. He doesn’t have the swagger or serial-killer aggression so often associated with fast-bowlers, but he does have impeccable consistency in both his technical ability and his performances. Philander has showed that with hard work and a boat load of determination, there is no need to have your fate dictated by a few forgettable performances. And Philander deserves every accolade bestowed upon him, because he has earned it by not allowing himself to fall victim to adversity. Instead, he kicked it in the teeth and climbed his way to the top, all while keeping his feet planted firmly on the ground.
“I was really humbled by tonight – it was a great experience for me,” Philander said after winning the SA Cricketer of the Year Award and SA Test Cricketer of the Year Award on Wednesday night.
“My favourite moment thus far has definitely been my debut at Newlands,” he added.
Philander has come a long way since being known as “that guy who dropped the catch against England” and, when he strutted up to collect his SA Cricketer of the Year Award at the gala dinner on Wednesday evening with Michael Jackson’s “Billy Jean” barely being able to drown out the cheers and the applause emerging from the standing ovation, Philander could smile – knowing that, just like Billie Jean, he had caused a scene.
His biggest test yet awaits him in England, but as with all challenges that Big Vern has faced, he’ll tackle it head-on, wrestle it into a vice grip and wipe the dust from his shoulders with a smile. If it’s possible that Philander still has enemies or doubters, they should be patient, because there are buckets of success in his future for them to get angry about. Or so South Africans will hope, anyway. DM