An old cricketing adage has it that all the great seam bowlers start out as young tearaways, hurling the ball at the speed of light, before in later years slowing down, and promoting control of line and length over raw pace. Like all adages, this is only partly true.
The most celebrated example of the tendency is Sir Richard Hadlee. The great Kiwi began his career running in from a spot adjacent to the sight screen. By the time he claimed his 431st and final Test wicket, his run-up was about a quarter of that, but his mastery of swing and seam was almost peerless.
Yet many of the great fast bowlers refuse to slow down; or rather, on discovering their loss of pace, retire immediately, blaming injury instead of the fact that they have reached a certain age. Jeff Thomson, Allan Donald, Frank Tyson, Joel Garner and Shoaib Akhtar answer to this description. Famed in their youth for terrifying speed, they preferred to retire than bowl 82-83mph consistently. To do so, they felt, would be a disservice to their country, to themselves, and to cricket.
Then there is another category of great seamer who never start out quick at all. Kapil Dev never beat a batsman for pace, but he did clock up 434 Test wickets. Shaun Pollock did slow down during his career, changing his action to be more front-on and so relieving the burden on his back; but he was always a there-or-thereabouts specialist, hitting the seam and making the most of any assistance from pitch or air, rather than bowling quick.
In modern times, Glenn McGrath has epitomised this species of bowler, rightly being renowned as "the most unremarkable of all the remarkable bowlers". He boasted that his chief ambition with ball in hand was to hit the top of off-stump six times in a row, as he gambolled his way to 563 Test wickets. Now, in South Africa, a bowler has emerged who is not just being talked about in the same breath as McGrath, but has been given a nickname to acknowledge their similarities.
Vernon Philander is the most exciting seamer since Mohammad Amir. Yet his bowling is remarkably unremarkable. His colleagues call him "Verne McGrath". He has become the second-fastest bowler to 50 Test wickets in history, and given the only man to beat him was the Australian seamer C B T Turner, who set the record in 1888, that is the most spectacular start to a bowling career in the modern game. What's more, he has taken 51 wickets in seven games at an incredible 14.15 runs each, and a strike rate of 26.7.
His method, currently on display at Somerset, is basic. He bowls a full length, and when the conditions favour it his stock ball is an away-swinger (the Duke ball he uses this summer will do more than the Kookaburra he is used to). His mastery of the off-cutter is complete: many of his victims are castled when shouldering arms.
Shorter than McGrath, and with more of a collapsed front knee, he does not generate the same bounce. But he does bowl wicket to wicket, and an exceptionally good wrist action means nine balls out of 10 dart one way or the other off the wicket. Just like the Australian, who took five-fers at Lords without topping 81mph, Philander is at his best when not bowling full pelt. When he plays against England this summer, he will have Dale Steyn, the best bowler in the world, and the excellent Morne Morkel alongside him. Steyn and Morkel have actions which their bodies will rebel against within a few years.
Philander, in contrast, could play for well over a decade. If any readers want to bet a day's play at Lord's that he becomes his country's leading wicket-taker, do write in. It might be a while before we can settle; but at his current rate, not intolerably long.Reuse content