A few coloured kids are playing cricket with an upturned tomato crate as stumps in the streets of Ravensmead in the Western suburbs of Cape Town. It’s the ’90s. It’s an impoverished suburb; people trapped in a whirlpool of socio-economic problems – from unemployment to drug abuse and gang culture. One of those cricket kids was Vernon Philander.
“That’s why I rate the rise of Vernon as a huge achievement. He rose above it all,” says his mentor in life and sport Johannes Adams, who has known Philander from the age of 12. “He grew up with a single mom in her parents’ home and had the fierce determination and tremendous appetite for hard work to rise above the social ills in his region. It’s a phenomenal achievement, really.”
The colour of his skin and the socio-economic issues weren’t the only obstacles. The South African cricketing system too was a back-breaker. As many as 90 per cent of professional cricketers emerge from traditional and privileged cricket schools. Philander came through the hard grind: playing club cricket with men from the age of 15.
“Not many come through that avenue. Philander, me and just a handful really,” says Ashwell Prince, whose own rise in 2000s is an inspirational tome for disadvantaged kids in South Africa. Ahmed Amla, the brother of Hashim, once said, “Prince is the only batsman who came through the transformation phase of apartheid. The rest like Hashim are younger lot who didn’t have to face what Prince faced. He is very tough upstairs.”
Prince unpacks the cricketing system. “Philander and me are what I call as players from ‘across the fence’. Both of us were products of club cricket. In Australia, that is termed as Grade cricket and is highly respected. Not here. You are training thrice a week, matches on weekends, your cricket growth is accelerated by the presence of adults, sometimes international players too would be there. It’s great learning, really. Instead, our system is skewed towards schools. Even if you are playing in a school team, you are 15 and just playing with 17-year olds. The growth in club culture is way better. But because it isn’t common, it isn’t trusted,” Prince says.
Prince had played a few international games and was the captain of Cape Cobras when the 19-year old Philander joined the team in the provincial competition. The age difference melted within a few car rides; Prince would drive the teenager to matches.
“We don’t believe that anyone is better than you just because they have a lighter skin than you. Whether the other guy is black, Indian, white, or Muslim – or whatever the case maybe – it doesn’t matter. It’s not about your skin or whether you studied in a traditional cricket school. Vernon and I have got along really well over the years partly because we see many things the same way.”
But the first thing about Philander that gobsmacked Prince was his knowledge of the game and the innate confidence. “I had never seen a 19-year old have as much knowledge as Vernon. He would talk about an U-19 tour to Bangladesh and would break down minutely the changes and adaptations needed. What line to bowl in South African conditions, different match scenarios. The game sense.
“And that confidence. Never seen someone until then or after that with so much self-belief. What I told you about the race and stuff, it’s not as if we sat down and had chats about it. I knew right away that he was a sorted-out kid. What drove him was the determination to rise above his background, the system and excel. He was a doer. And he knew he was good enough to do it.”
Of course, it didn’t prove an easy journey. It’s one thing to unpack all those issues of gravitas internally, but to fight the system with an in-built prejudice in the real world is different. It took Philander a few years, reserves of patience and fiery dollops of ambition – and a visit to a sports psychologist which stubbed out the thought of quitting cricket and joining the Navy.
Gill Taylor, who works with the Sports Science Institute of South Africa these days, remembers Philander dropping in for a chat. He was in his early 20’s, had played a few limited-overs games for South Africa, and had ben dumped like a sack. A recall seemed distant. The fire within was burning; he wanted some direction, control over his life.
“He came in because he wasn’t sure which direction to go in terms of career path. Should he throw himself completely into cricket or should he start another career. He was conflicted. He wanted structure and not drift around in uncertainty,” Taylor remembers. She recalls Philander wondering aloud at one stage whether he should join the Navy. “He felt that would give him the structure. Remember where he came from. If he wasn’t moving ahead, it would not just feel as if he was stagnating but actually like a drifter. He certainly didn’t want to be one. Navy was one option. We discussed everything and at the end, decided to give cricket some more time. Now that he had clarity about the what-else he could do; I think he went back to the game with greater vigour.”
Around this time, another significant little moment had happened. The mentor Adams, who was like Philander’s shadow and a chief trigger behind the clarity of thought and the personality of Philander that would leave such an indelible impact on Ashwell Prince, had decided to step back a touch. “I remember we had gone to see a doctor for an injury. Early 20s. The perceptive doctor suggested that I should perhaps step back a little. Allow him to grow on his own. That stayed with me. Since I knew his family well, and would pick him at 10 to take him to the club and matches, I had become a constant voice in his head. I thought it would be best if I did step back. Allow him to find his space. He had grown into this beautiful confident young man; I wasn’t actually needed anymore,” Adams says.
Until his last series against England, Adams was a constant presence at the stadium in Cape Town. Every time Philander would take a wicket, his eyes would look for Adams and he would wave. For every wicket. “What can I say, I am happy and proud. All the years, the effort, the sweat had come through. Philander was where he wanted to be.”
To understand Philander’s formative years one need to know Adams. A club cricketer, a coach, and above all, an educator in the western suburbs of Cape Town. One of his primary motivations was to unearth success stories from within Ravensmead who can later be role models and show other kids the way to get out of the social mess. It’s not just Philander but he has also mentored the likes of Alphonso Thomas.
“Role models are very important. I saw the burning desire in the 10-year-old Philander. I knew he didn’t want to get trapped there. Some of the kids who played cricket with him have long disappeared. Cricket saved Philander and kept him on the right path. His grandparents are religious and he was close to them. And his mother, a single mom, did everything possible. I don’t remember even once where I had to drag him for training; he was always keen. That emotional support at home was important. They had lots of things on their plate and cricket wasn’t necessarily top of their mind but once they realised the game was helping the kid, they entrusted him to me,” Adams says. “I was just glad to help a boy rise out of that background with what little I could do – converse, mentor, and just take him around to the cricket. He studied in ordinary schools, and rose above all those challenges. No father figure at home. We needed him to grow, achieve and be a role model. That’s why I got so involved with him to do my bit.”
Pepper steak pies too helped along the way. A throaty laughter escapes Adams. “The young Philander was in love with them. It didn’t matter whether we were coming from training or a match, he would always make me stop and have one. Sometimes, I think it’s the secret of his strong big-built body! It all stopped as soon as he signed as a professional cricketer for Cape Cobras; with the dieticians coming in, he realised he had to let go of the pies.”
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If not for Gary Kirsten, Philander’s wait for Test cricket might have been futile. When Kirsten took over as South Africa coach, he asked the openers of the domestic teams to name the fast bowler they most worried about. Nearly everyone voted for Philander – and Kirsten picked him right away.
He might have left pies in his teenage days but there would be constant carping about his fitness over the years. Primarily from the South African cricket community. Faf du Plessis and Graeme Smith too have been critical occasionally. Sometimes, as an outsider, it would feel he was almost picked on. “That’s exactly how I felt too,” Prince says. “Instead of looking at what he is delivering, why would they keep harping on this and that? Why would you doubt him? My complaint was also a bit different. There were a few other big players who were allowed to do what they wanted – take a break, talk about quitting the game, and they were all accommodated. Why are people being treated differently. Everybody deserves to be treated the same. That’s where I come from and Vernon also comes from there. He is exactly the same. Sometimes, he would question the leadership – people will question him and he will challenge back,” Prince says.
The complexities in the Rainbow Nation, and in particular with their cricket, isn’t quite understood well by the outsiders.
It kept festering in Prince and erupted when AB de Villiers decided to take a break from Test cricket. When Faf du Plessis said “he has earned the right to do what he wants to do,” Prince tweeted. “Ridiculous statement, just wondering at which point then @amlahash will be allowed to do what he wants?” Next tweet popped out. “(Graeme) Smith did say AB could do whatever he wants to. There must be a tipping point where players become bigger than the nation.” When Paul Harris, another former player, intervened to say the discussion should not be carried on social media, Prince replied, “Didn’t hear you say that when both Biff (Smith) and Faf hung Vern out to dry in public, did I? Some #proteafire they have going out there.”
A year on, Prince says his comments came from the right place. “Whatever I am today is because of South African cricket. From the time I remember opening my eyes as a kid, cricket has been a part of my life. I just want South African cricket to grow. One thing is for sure, Philander will go down as an all-time great in South African cricket. One of the main reasons for us to go up to No.1 in Test ranking. Even 40 years later, he would feature in top bowling averages in the history of the game.”
Cue up the Virat Kohli set-up in Cape Town from 2018. Ball after ball, it kept bending away. Mind you, Kohli was already in his 20s, and Philander had returned for his second spell. Kohli looked secure, kept walking across the stumps, reach the off peg, and shoulder arms.
What was Philander thinking? Four years before he ran into Kohli, he had revealed his head space in an interview. “’Hold, Hold, Hold, then click’. For me, it’s all about the timing when to strike. I will decide that it’s time … to deliver that one specific ball,” he had told Cricinfo.
So, he was now holding at Kohli. The ball kept squirting away, Kohli kept leaving them. Time to click the finger and Kohli was on his walk across when he was startled by the nip-backer that trapped him lbw. “You might have one specific delivery with which you can get a batsman out, you have to produce it at the right time,” Philander’s mantra.
What made him the most destructive modern-day seamer on pitches that had some help was also perhaps the reason Philander wasn’t as effective on other surfaces. The not-extravagant-but-just-enough deviation on spicy tracks would get the ball to collide with the edge or miss the bat to crash into the pad. The flip-side of this hypothesis is self-evident but why did so many top batsmen lose their poise – be late on the ball, cagey and their balance yanked away?
Former Australian opener Chris Rogers has nailed the issue in the past. And so has Ricky Ponting, who has said that Philander was the toughest bowler he ever faced in his career on helpful pitches. But here is Rogers with some clarity.
“With most swing bowlers they tend to angle the seam, so you kind of know which way the ball’s going to go. I always found with him, his seam would point directly at you, and you never knew what it was going to do; as a left-hander, was it going to swing back into you? Or was it going to hit the seam and move away? That was his skill. He just does enough both ways. You’re almost guessing; sometimes you’re just hoping the ball hits the bat,” Rogers had told 91.3 Sport FM radio station.
Ponting certainly agreed last year. “He is probably the hardest I faced in world cricket with those type of conditions because you don’t get any visual clues with the swinging ball. Most other guys when there’s movement, the ball actually swings in the air first and you have some sort of idea of which way the ball is going to go,” he told BT Sport. “He doesn’t swing the ball at all. It comes out of his hand dead straight. So you sort of end up trying to find and feel… for which way the ball is going to go. We saw a couple of replays today; the release was exactly the same two balls in a row, they landed in almost exactly the same spot, one seamed away and the other one seamed in. He’s just a class act when the ball is seaming.”
The second-quickest to 50 Test wickets (just 13 innings), sixth quickest to 100 (19 Tests, quicker than Dale Steyn), and finishing with an average of 22.32 at an economy rate of 2.63. Since his debut, no other bowler, who has taken more than 150 wickets, has a better average. In South Africa, he took 146 wickets at 19.08. In England, 23.54, in New Zealand 22.95. On the flip side, just 16 wickets from 10 games in Asia at an average of 38.06 though the economy rate was still great at 2.5. In Australia, in five Tests, he took 16 wickets at 30.12. Is it the average of 35.36 in 16 Tests outside home, England and New Zealand that has led to a general lack of buzz around his farewell, forget in South Africa as they didn’t turn up for even Jacques Kallis, but in the cricketing world at large?
Not long back, he started a foundation to help his neighbourhood kids and schools and roped in Adams to help. Not just cricket but the foundation has helped kids playing other sports and built infrastructure like libraries and sporting equipment. “The foundation also helps kids who can’t afford the money for education. Vernon wants to give back to his society,” Adams says.
A boy from ‘across the fence’, to use Prince’s words, has crossed personal and social barriers to reach where he wanted and now wants others to cross over.
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