Meet the man who can knock England off the top of the tree
South Africa's Vernon Philander has enjoyed the best start to a Test bowling career in over 100 years and his stint at Somerset spells bad news for Strauss's men this summer
Joe Denly could not recall his previous meeting with Vernon Philander and it is likely that Alastair Cook's memories of being dismissed twice by the South African in the same championship match are hazy, at best. But all those encounters took place in 2008, long before the most purple of patches turned Philander into one of international cricket's hottest properties.
Denly, who made 14 international appearances for England a couple of years ago and hopes to blossom again following a winter move from Kent to Middlesex, is currently better equipped than just about anyone in this country to comment on the threat that Philander is likely to pose over the next few months – first on the county circuit and then during an eagerly anticipated series between the world's top two Test teams. The opening batsman needed every ounce of his considerable skill, all his determination and a fair share of good fortune to keep Philander at bay during last week's Championship match at Taunton.
True, conditions were helpful for seam bowling, especially during Middlesex's first innings when Philander took 5 for 43 on his Somerset debut and only Denly's excellent 73 comforted the visitors. But to say the ex-Kent player was impressed with what he faced would be an understatement.
"He is a quality bowler," said Denly with a knowing smile. "That spell against the new ball in the first innings was as tough as I've had it as a batter.
"I believe I did face him a few years ago but I can't remember the details [it was a domestic limited-overs match in 2008 when Philander spent a few weeks playing for Middlesex]. But in the Taunton game he was hard work. As an opening batsman he doesn't give you much. He is always asking questions with the line and length he bowls, especially with that new ball.
"He doesn't swing it a great deal but he presents the seam pretty much every delivery and he's on and around off stump all the time. As an opener, that's tough. On top of that he has decent pace – and because he was hitting the seam nine times out of 10 he was always going to cause trouble. From what I saw he is going to be tough work for England later this summer."
Denly loyally added that he was confident Andrew Strauss, Cook and the rest would cope well enough come July and the start of a three-match series with South Africa. But in order to do so they will have to halt a sequence that has seen Philander become just about unstoppable since he was given a Test debut against Australia last November.
In just seven appearances, at home against the Aussies and Sri Lanka and away in New Zealand, the powerfully built 26-year-old from Cape Town has taken a remarkable 51 wickets at an even more astonishing average of 14 runs apiece. No bowler has had a start like that to their Test career for more than 100 years – and few people, by all accounts, saw Philander as a likely record-breaker until he began pulling up trees.
It was not just in England in 2008 that Philander passed through almost unnoticed. He had already made his one-day international debut at that stage but was very much a fill-in recruit for Middlesex, where he batted in the middle order and took 10 Second Division championship wickets (including Cook's, twice) in three matches at 28 runs apiece. And as for two ODI appearances against England later that summer, well they produced combined figures of 13-0-80-0.
Thank you and goodbye. And so it was, for three years, with Philander not used again by South Africa until November last year. But has he been making up for lost time ever since, or what?
And so we come to the by no means unique situation where a cricketer who could soon be making life extremely unpleasant for England has arrived in this country for a finishing school in conditions which if not completely alien to him will certainly feel more comfortable after extra homework. Or that's the way some critics will see it, anyway.
"We always look at the worse side of things," said Somerset captain and former England batsman Marcus Trescothick when it was put to him that signing Philander for a couple of months might not be in the national interest.
"For a start we signed him back in November when he had just played his first Test. And people don't tend to look at the fact it works both ways. Yes, he is getting used to our conditions but these couple of months also give our batsmen and coaches a chance to have a real good look at him."
There were certainly two sides to a similar story in 2009 when Australia's Phil Hughes scored a mountain of early season runs for Middlesex but revealed a weakness against the short ball that turned him into a walking Ashes wicket come mid-summer.
But whatever the pros and cons, South Africa clearly have a new diamond to give their Dale Steyn-led attack an even sharper cutting edge.
"Philander will be a handful for England," said Trescothick without a moment's hesitation. "In some ways he looks pretty innocuous with how he runs up but then he hits the bat hard and the ball carries through a hell of a long way. The stats say he bowls at about 135 kilometres an hour [84 mph] but it feels quicker than that.
"He is very consistent, nibbles the ball both ways, is always in the game and looking like he could get bags of wickets for us very quickly. I would think I will be getting a call from Straussy about him before too long!"
The only worry from South Africa's point of view at present is that Philander does too much after a heavy winter workload.
"Obviously, South Africa don't want me to rejoin them with niggles or injuries," said the man himself. "But they've spoken to Somerset about my workload and everyone is happy.
"Getting used to the conditions over here, and also bowling with the Duke ball which is different to the Kookaburra, is very important to me. Hopefully I can learn some lessons and take them into the series against England after helping Somerset to win a few games."
Big Vern in numbers
50 Philander has reached the Test wickets milestone quicker than anyone in 116 years.
14.15 Philander's average per wicket in seven Test matches.
10 He has taken 10 wickets in a match twice.
96 Runs scored with the bat, with an average of 13.71.
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