It was developing in to déjà vu for the South Africans, except from the wrong seat in the house. Twice in the first Test against India, they had watched AB de Villiers come in and wave his magic wand to part the seas of trouble that plagued lesser men. Steep bounce, jagged movement, fired-up bowlers – they all melted in front of de Villiers in the first innings and second.
But India’s bowlers found sufficient venom against the rest to give their batsmen a target of 208 for victory, with two sessions remaining on the fourth day. The first three wickets were snuffed out within an hour’s play, and Virat Kohli happened. Just like de Villiers, he seemed to be playing a different game. But the difference was, South Africa had Vernon Philander.
They were missing Dale Steyn, hit by a cruel injury blow in the first innings at Newlands. They had their backs to the wall, defending a low target. They had to contend with Kohli, who was slowly appearing to hit the zone when all his eyes see are the target ahead and nothing else matters. Then along came Philander.
The plan to Kohli was simple. Away, away, away. Some more away. Get the Indian captain moving across his stumps bit by painstaking bit. And then, when you have judged that you have got him doing just that, slip in the one that comes back in. It’s a matter of inches, because you need to get it just right so that Kohli still walks across but he has to then be caught by surprise by the inward movement too. Miss the line by a bit and you can get creamed or the ball will sail harmlessly through. Pitch it a bit shorter and Kohli has enough time to adjust. Pitch it too full and the ball doesn’t have enough time to move the extent necessary where beating Kohli is possible.
Luckily for South Africa, Philander has made hitting coins on pitches his hobby.
“Virat’s obviously a very good player, an aggressive player. I think the key thing is to keep him quiet and to make sure you set him up for the other one,” said Philander. “We knew Virat was a big wicket to get. It was about two and a half overs of away swingers and then one back into him. It was definitely a plan to keep him quiet and also to drag him across and make sure that when you do bowl the other one, he’s on the other side of the off-stump.”
South Africa still had to wait for full-throated celebrations because Kohli went for the review. A nerve-wracking process for bowlers. “Jeez, I tell you what, it gives all the bowlers a quicker heartbeat,” smiled Philander. “Because first of all they have to check the front line, and then DRS might just decide to go its own way!”
But did he have any doubts about whether Kohli was out or not? “Absolutely not,” came the reply. “From the get-go, I knew it was stone dead.”
Philander knew he had to be the man to step up, with South Africa a bowler short. And he gave Faf du Plessis over after relentless over. “When you look at the type of score we had to defend – 208 – someone has to make the play,” he offered. “You can’t wait for later on in the game, because there might not be a later on in the game.”
It was an effort that didn’t go unnoticed by Kohli either. “In the second innings, that effort was really good because they only had three bowlers with Dale not being able to compete,” said Kohli. “But Vernon has different strengths. He will always pitch the ball in those areas of uncertainty. He will also get the ball to seam both ways. You have to be at the top of your game every time you play against this bowling attack because of the variety as well. He bowled really well in the second innings when the ball wasn’t doing as much.”
But Philander wasn’t simply running in like a workhorse. He was, as evidenced by the Kohli dismissal, thinking batsmen out too. And he was happy to put ego aside to do that. When R Ashwin and Bhuvneshwar Kumar began to get a partnership going for the eighth wicket, du Plessis suggested that Quinton de Kock stand up to the stumps. To some fast bowlers, the ‘keeper standing up is the ultimate insult. Not for Philander.
“You have to be open to those suggestions, and I’ll have to give this one to Faffy,” said Philander. “Ashwin at the time was batting out far from his crease. The ball was a bit older as well and the wicket was a touch slower.” The result was that Ashwin did slash at one and de Kock took a great catch to end a 49-run stand.
Three balls after that, the innings and the Test was done and dusted, Philander taking the last three wickets in four deliveries. And to think he almost didn’t bowl the over that ended the match. “Coming out after tea, I was a little bit on the stiff side,” revealed Philander. “I had to bowl two or three overs to get myself going. Just before that last over I bowled, Faffy was actually going to bowl Morne (Morkel) and I said to him, ‘Listen I’m actually warm now, so just give me one more.’ Luckily it paid off.”
It paid off handsomely, and left India stone dead. And there wasn’t any need to wait for a review on that.