Philander's absence felt on dour first day at Old Trafford
A Vernon Philander-shaped vacuum gaped at the heart of South Africa’s attack at Old Trafford on Friday, and will again on Saturday.
Philander, the finest exploiter of seam movement of the age, pulled out of the fourth Test against England at the 11th hour with a lower back strain, and left behind him a pile of bricks in search of the cement he is to turn them into a wall.
South Africa didn’t bowl particularly poorly after England won the toss, but they also didn’t bowl anywhere near well.
Perhaps it made sense that England, who had a comparably mediocre day with the bat, could reach only a middling 260/6.
Half-centuries by Joe Root and Ben Stokes helped the home side veer away from trouble, which they would have been less likely to avoid had the sniping Philander been around.
Chris Morris was another forced withdrawal with another lower back strain, but it was Philander’s absence that hurt South Africa most. In their places came Theunis de Bruyn and Duanne Olivier.
England shaded a slow first session in which they scored 67 runs for the now anticipated loss of the struggling Keaton Jennings.
South Africa fought back between lunch and tea, claiming the wickets of Alastair Cook, Tom Westley and Dawid Malan for the addition of 80 runs.
After tea, in sunshine that Manchester hasn’t seen for a week and more, both half-centurions were dismissed and 113 runs scored.
That’s as neat a précis of events of a day’s play that swung neither this way nor that as this reporter is able to provide.
More interesting were reports that Ottis Gibson, the Bajan former Border fast bowler who is now England’s bowling coach, was keen on taking over as South Africa’s head coach.
“At the moment Russell Domingo is head coach of South Africa and doing a brilliant job,” England assistant coach Paul Farbrace said. “It would be disrespectful to talk about it.”
Perhaps Farbrace will be keener to discuss the issue after the match, when Domingo’s contract expires.
There were moments for the memory on Friday, like when Quinton de Kock channeled his inner salmon to leap to his right and take, one-handed, the catch that removed Tom Westley.
Or De Kock not moving a muscle when Root edged Morne Morkel and thus escaped being caught behind for 40 and instead went on to equal John Edrich’s England record of reaching 50 in 10 consecutive Tests.
Or Jonny Bairstow being given out caught at slip for four off Keshav Maharaj but reprieved by replays that did not show clearly whether the ball had bounced onto Dean Elgar’s fingers or the ground.
But, mostly, the day meandered — through a stand of 57 between Cook and Westley, another of 52 between Dawid Malan and Root, and still another of 65 between Bairstow and Stokes.
Root tried to flick Olivier to leg and was trapped in front for 52, and five balls before stumps Stokes was yorked by Rabada for 58.
England batted like a team who knew they don’t need to win the match to win the series, which they don’t have to by dint of having prevailed by 239 runs at The Oval.
South Africa bowled like a side that can no longer win the series, and for the same reason.
Would the addition of Philander to the equation have made that much difference, given that not even his best effort could have brought South Africa back from the brink they were dragged to by losing at The Oval?
No, but the contest was nonetheless poorer for his absence. It will be again on Saturday.