On this day five years ago, Vernon Philander registered what was then his best-ever figures in an innings (6/42) to bowl South Africa to a famous 72-run victory over India in Cape Town.
By then, Philander had 12 five-wicket hauls and series-winning showings in Australia, England and New Zealand, so despite the 6/42 being career-best figures, it wasn’t quite his ‘best ever’ showing per se.
However, for a variety of reasons, his performance that day at Newlands has rightly gone down as one of the most iconic spells of fast bowling in the past decade.
Just what made that Philander performance so special? Well, let’s go down the memory lane.
Played 32, Won 21, Lost 2 and unbeaten (in a series) across three years — this is what Virat Kohli’s India had achieved prior to departing for South Africa. They had stupendously dominated Test cricket for the best part of three years and were, by some distance, the best and the most consistent side in the world.
But there was a slight caveat; the aforementioned period included zero tours in SENA countries; hence 2018 was being seen as the true litmus test for Kohli’s side’s greatness. That year, they were scheduled to tour three of the four SENA countries — South Africa, England and Australia — and first up were the Proteas.
India, heading into the tour, had never won a Test series in South Africa, but the three-Test series against Faf du Plessis’ men was widely considered their best-ever chance to break the duck. India themselves, for one, were flying high, and at the absolute peak of their powers, and the Proteas were no longer invincible at home, having been beaten by Australia and England in the preceding three years.
With both sides on either side of the spectrum, the stage, heading into the series, was tailor-made for Kohli’s men to script history and affirm their greatness.
Faf du Plessis, much to the delight of South African fans, won the toss and batted first, but as he and his side braced to bowl in the fourth innings, the game was in the balance. After the completion of the first innings of both sides, the Proteas were firmly in the drivers’ seat, having collected a 77-run lead, but an inspired bowling performance from India in the second innings saw the hosts get bowled out for 130 in the second dig.
Led by debutant Jasprit Bumrah, Kohli’s men were rampant with the ball, and their ruthless showing put victory in sight: 208 is what India needed in the fourth innings to script a historic win and put themselves in pole position to win the series.
It was never going to be easy on a track that had plenty of divots, but India entered the chase knowing their opponents would be a bowler short. Indeed, Dale Steyn injured himself while bowling in the first innings and subsequently ruled himself out of the remainder of the Test and the series.
India, then, entered the fourth innings chase with momentum, psychological edge and a man advantage. The pressure was firmly on South Africa, who had all to do.
Seven overs into the chase, the anxiety grew among South African fans as India got off to a flyer. Murali Vijay and Shikhar Dhawan had added only 16 in the first innings, but here they added 30 inside eight overs. India had knocked off 15% of the target without losing a wicket and suddenly, 208 was not looking big.
But little did they know what lay ahead for them.
On the final ball of the eighth over, Morne Morkel accounted for the wicket of Dhawan with a vicious bouncer, and that was just the opening South Africa were looking for.
Philander, in the very next over, removed Vijay — caught at third slip — and Pujara followed suit a couple of overs later, falling prey to Morkel. 30/0 suddenly became 39/3 and things were looking gloomy for the visitors.
But for South Africa, the game was far from won.
At 39/3, Kohli and Rohit Sharma got together and sublime batting from the Indian skipper over the course of the next six overs saw the visitors get right back in the chase. Kohli raced to 28 off his first 36 balls, stroking multiple delightful boundaries, and suddenly, the score was 71/3.
India needed 137 more with 7 wickets in hand, and the target looked very much achievable, especially with Kohli batting like a dream.
South Africa needed something inspirational.
Well, something inspirational they did get. From the hand of none other than Vernon Philander.
Du Plessis, who’d withdrawn Philander from the attack after the 11th over, reintroduced his talisman in the 18th, and over the course of the following 30 minutes, the right-armer turned the game on its head.
In the third over of his spell, Philander delivered a hammer blow by trapping Kohli leg-before for 28, and, four balls later, knocked over Rohit Sharma, who’d spent considerable time at the crease, having faced 30 balls.
In a remarkable four-over stretch that read 4-1-3-2, Philander completely tilted the contest in South Africa’s favour and the pressure he exerted enabled Rabada to snatch two more at the other end. 71/3 was now 82/7 and the Proteas could see the finish line.
But there was to be one final twist.
Ashwin and Bhuvneshwar Kumar got together at 82/7, and remarkably, the pair ended up posting the highest partnership of the innings.
Ashwin batted like a dream and raced to 35 in no time, and he was supported excellently by Bhuvneshwar, who stayed put and complimented his partner. For an hour or so, it was not simply happening for South Africa, and at 131/7, with 77 required, India still had an outside chance.
Or so they thought.
As it turned out, though, the stage was merely being set up for a grandstand finish from the arm of Philander.
In the fourth over of his third spell, fittingly, Philander bowled South Africa to victory in style, claiming three wickets in four balls. He first accounted for the huge scalp of Ashwin by forcing de Kock to stand up to the stumps, and then, after conceding a boundary, removed Shami and Bumrah in consecutive deliveries, in identical fashion, to register a 72-run win for his side.
He finished with match figures of 9/75 and was deservedly named Player of the Match.
The spell proved to be not just match-defining but series-defining: South Africa went on to win 2-1 and maintained their record of having not lost a Test series at home to India.
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