TELFORD VICE in Manchester
SOUTH Africa’s fate, not for the first time in their test series in England, is in the hands of Vernon Philander* in the fourth test at Old Trafford on Friday.
The visitors’ destiny has not only been in his hands. In the first test at Lord’s it was in Philander’s ankle, which was in recovery from being twisted by stepping awkwardly onto a boundary rope while playing for Sussex.
And in his right hand, which was bruised by a delivery from James Anderson.
South Africa lost that match by 211 runs.
Nothing befell Philander before or during the second test at Trent Bridge, and South Africa won by 340 runs.
In the third test at The Oval, Philander fell ill with a stomach virus on the first morning.
South Africa went down by 239 runs.
By the look Philander at a press conference at Old Trafford on Wednesday, he had been drained of several kilogrammes but seemed good to go on Friday.
So, Faf du Plessis, what’s it going to be like to have a fit and firing Philander standing at the top of his run, new ball in hand?
“Vernon will go through a fitness test [on Thursday]; he has a tight back,” Du Plessis said gloomily on Thursday, adding probably in hope: “He should be okay.”
Team management said a decision on his inclusion wouldn’t be made before Friday morning, after the medics had “seen how he wakes up”.
What might all that mean for South Africa as they look to secure a share of the series?
“Vernon at 100% fit means we can look at playing three seamers and seven batsmen,” Du Plessis said.
“Vernon at 90% doesn’t mean you can play three seamers because you don’t want to be in a position where you have a seamer break down and then you only have two, because that is basically the test match over right there.
“The one occasion where we managed to pull a miracle off was in Australia with two seamers, but normally you can’t win a test match with two bowlers.”
That was in Perth in November, when Dale Steyn broke his shoulder during Australia’s first innings, leaving Kagiso Rabada and Philander to pick up the slack and Keshav Maharaj and JP Duminy — and even Stephen Cook and Temba Bavuma — to do the rest.
Rabada took 5/92 and everyone else except Cook claimed a wicket each as South Africa surged to victory by 177 runs.
But that was in the first match of a series against opponents who talked a better game than they played.
Now, South Africa have their backs to the wall against a team who know they don’t have to win the match to claim the series.
The weather isn’t helping in that regard. It’s been raining for days in Manchester and isn’t predicted to abate until lunchtime on Friday at the earliest.
Pools of water sat on the outfield on Thursday afternoon, and the groundstaff are using heat lamps apparently donated by police — who seized them in raids on cannabis growers — to try to improve the soggier patches.
Scratch, then, the question about a fit Philander armed with the new ball.
“If he is not 100% fit it’s important to look at having four seamers,” Du Plessis said.
That might mean, if Philander is fit enough to be picked, South Africa will be unchanged to preserve their seam attack of him, Morne Morkel, Rabada and Chris Morris.
If Philander’s out, Duanne Olivier could get the chance to atone for his ineffectual performance at Trent Bridge.
There is, then, uncertainty in the visitors’ dressingroom.
And not only among the players: less than a week away from the end of his current contract, Russell Domingo doesn’t know whether he’ll have a job after this match.
* Philander has since been ruled out, along with Chris Morris. Both have lower back strains.