London — Should Vernon Philander need to call in a favour from his captain at Lord’s over the next few days‚ he should remind him of a certain game of football in Bangalore in November.
Two days before the second Test‚ with a green pitch glinting from the middle — a pitch that looked nothing like the strip of baked‚ bald mud that had aided and abetted India’s thumping win in the first Test in Mohali — the visitors warmed up for a training session at M Chinnaswamy Stadium by having a kick-about. One silly thing led to another‚ and Philander landed on Dean Elgar’s foot badly enough for the fast bowler to rip ankle ligaments and be sidelined for eight months.
Tuesday marked two days before the start of SA’s series against England. This time‚ happily‚ Philander and Elgar got through training without tripping into a terrible tango.
And a good thing‚ too — Philander will lead SA’s attack and Elgar will be his captain in the absence of the paternally engaged Faf du Plessis.
"We’ve got all the faith in Dean: if he has the support of the other 10 guys on the field it will make his job a lot easier‚" Philander said.
"Hopefully he’ll get a win under his belt and put pressure on Faf."
That was tipped with a smile‚ but Philander was more serious in his assessment of AB de Villiers’s choice not to play in the series. "We’re a settled unit now — the boys have moved on‚" he said. "Our focus is not on one particular player.
"Our focus is on the team and getting the team to do well."
Well might Philander be so bullish. De Villiers was last seen in whites in January 2016. SA have since played 11 Tests, of which they have won seven and lost only one‚ along the way claiming two series against New Zealand and one each against Australia and Sri Lanka.
De Villiers is the finest batsman SA has produced since Jacques Kallis‚ but‚ clearly‚ he is not being missed in the longest format. That would not be the case with Russell Domingo‚ who has helped his team earn 94 wins in his 168 games as coach — but who could be out of a job when his contract expires at the end of the series.
"He’s been a phenomenal part of this team’s success over the years‚" Philander said.
"It’s unbelievable work to get your team to No1 in the world in ODI cricket and No2 in the world in Test cricket from where we have come from.
"He’s done everything right as a coach‚ but it’s not up to us as players to decide [whether Domingo stays on]."
Even more than Domingo‚ SA will need Philander’s guile and experience.
Taking him out of the attack — leaving‚ probably‚ Kagiso Rabada‚ Morné Morkel and Keshav Maharaj — would be taking the thorn out of a lion’s paw. So South Africans will be reassured he has overcome another ankle injury‚ this one sustained two weeks ago while playing for Sussex.
The mishap happened when he stepped on a hoop holding the boundary rope in place at Grace Road in Leicester.
If that sounds familiar‚ it is because another of SA’s players did something similar the day before the second Test against New Zealand in August.
Who was that player? Elgar.
Might that symmetry mean that‚ one day‚ bowlers will also be tapped to captain Test teams‚ if only in a pinch?
"We would probably make the batsmen bowl and the bowlers bat‚" Philander said with another smile.
"You do get a different perspective from a bowler’s point of view," he said.
"But we all have our input with the captain and the game plan," he added.
"It won’t just be him making the call and everyone goes with it," Philander said.
Spoken like a true footballer.