Faf du Plessis delivered a withering assessment of Vernon Philander’s overall fitness following South Africa’s series defeat in England and told the wider public it is time to move on from the prospect of AB de Villiers ever returning to Test cricket.
Speaking after the 3-1 loss, the Proteas captain was simply asked about the frustration of the back spasms suffered by Philander that ruled him out a final Test that could have levelled the series and opted to make a point about his conditioning.
“Vern needs to work on his fitness. It’s happened too often he doesn’t play a full series and I have spoken to him about that and he’s accepted the challenge that he needs to improve,” said Du Plessis, who was denied a senior bowler he described as the world’s best in seaming conditions, having dominated England’s top order with 10 wickets in the first three Tests.
In the last of those, a 239-run defeat at The Oval, Philander struggled throughout after suffering from a stomach virus that had him spend one night in hospital on a drip. Nevetheless Du Plessis expected the 32-year-old to be ready for Old Trafford once clear of this illness only for a niggle the captain considered minor to crop up.
Graeme Smith, South Africa’s former captain, was first to query this early in the 177-run defeat that followed and, when asked if it was justified, Du Plessis replied: “It’s fair that you need to play a lot of cricket for your country and be available for selection. I think Vern will agree with that.
“Too many times the team has gasped ‘Vern could be injured again’. So he understands from a fitness point of view with important series coming up, Australia and India at home, he needs to be fit to get through all eight Tests.”
In Morne Morkel and Keshav Maharaj South Africa had two bowlers who stepped up across the duration of the tour’s Test leg, claiming 19 and 17 wickets respectively (the former was named their player of the series by England). But a glass-jawed top six that returned only one century from Dean Elgar and a single batsman averaging over 40 in Hashim Amla, was culpable.
The continuing absence of De Villiers was felt. Unquestionably one of the greatest batsmen South Africa has produced, the 33-year-old remains the limited overs captain and a Twenty20 freelancer but is currently taking an indefinite sabbatical from playing the Test arena that has now run 18 months and appears only a statement away from official retirement.
Talks between De Villiers and Cricket South Africa about his future are due to come soon, offering a glimmer of hope that he may be coaxed into the challenge of two upcoming marquee home summer series against India and Australia. But Du Plessis, among his closest friends from schoolboy to professional cricket, is doubtful.
He added: “We all know how good AB is and we missed him but we’ve spent too much time talking about, ‘When is AB going to come back?’
“The hope of him coming back is something I think we need to move past … and we need to find someone else who can fulfil those roles. Obviously you don’t just replace those players. If AB comes back, it’s a huge bonus. But I don’t expect it.”