TELFORD VICE, Cape Town
SELDOM has a smile beamed so broadly as the one that gleamed at a South African making his way up the densely dark tunnel that connects the main entrance to the field at M Chinnaswamy stadium in Bangalore.
It came from an Indian, along with a yawped, “You’ve missed it!” Missed what? Helpfully, he had taken photographs of what he was on about.
They showed Vernon Philander, his face downcast, needing a man under each arm to leave SA’s training session.
His left leg, kinked at the knee, dangled above the turf to keep his ankle – mangled by a misstep onto Dean Elgar’s foot – as untouched as possible. He was a picture of pain.
It was November 12, 2015; two days before the second test between India and SA. He would be out for up to eight weeks, the doctors said.
That was 34 weeks ago. For the first 18 of those weeks Philander did not play any cricket of consequence. But, since the third week of March, he has sent down 57 overs for WP and the Cobras in first-class matches.
Those are baby steps. Philander will try to make the leap to toddlerhood on SA A’s tour to Zimbabwe, which started yesterday, and on another A team venture, to Australia.
“I never quite knew the severity of the injury until a couple of months after it happened and it’s been coming and going,” Philander said this week before leaving for Zimbabwe. “But, these last few weeks, it’s really been holding up.”
But which bowler will SA get back?
Will he be the Philander who took 50 wickets in his first seven tests, a purple patch punctuated by six five-wicket hauls and fuelled by pitches perfect for seam bowling?
Or will he be the bowler who has mustered a mere dozen scalps from his last seven tests, the same one who has gone 17 tests without taking five in an innings?
Or will he steady somewhere between those far-flung poles?
“It’s hard to say if he’s going to be as good as he was,” Justin Ontong, a teammate at the Cobras since 2008, said. “He started off like a house on fire but I think we’ll settle for 85% of the standard he set.”
Ontong conceded that Philander “looked a bit down on his pace in the last game we played together” against the Titans in April.
“But I’ve seen him in the off-season and he looks a lot leaner. He’s been working hard on his nutrition and fitness and in the gym to get back that zip he used to have. That, with the accurate line and length he bowls, could make him a lethal weapon.
“He’s got a point to prove. A lot of people are writing him off and saying he’s past his best, but I believe there’s a lot of cricket left in Vernon.”
Ah, the glorious uncertainty. But what is certain is that Philander will return to a game that changed irrevocably on March 24 last year.
Considering SA were playing New Zealand in the World Cup semi-final that day, they should have put their best team on the field. Philander should not have been part of that team – not because he isn’t among SA’s best but because he had missed much of the tournament with a hamstring injury.
It showed, and Philander paid the high price of being blamed for SA’s defeat. Worse, he was damned as a quota player. The game in SA paid for the cynical folly of picking him with its integrity.
More than a year later, the unlanced boil has ballooned with big names who – depending on which side of the fence you’re on – are fed up with all that and want to retire to the T20 circus in the sky, or are holding SA cricket to ransom in return for their continued presence, however grudging.
Shut them all up, Vernon. Please.