With 269 international scalps in 101 matches, Vernon Philander was considered the backbone of the South Africa bowling attack until he played his last international match in 2020. These were the same skills that the PCB took into account when they appointed him as as Bowling Consultant for Pakistan's ICC T20 World Cup (2021) campaign which ended in a Semi-Final defeat against eventual champions, Australia.
In an exclusive interview with PakPassion.net, Philander spoke about his experience of coaching Pakistan, the reasons for Pakistan's exit from the ICC T20 World Cup, Shaheen Shah Afridi's bright future as spearhead of Pakistan's bowling attack, what Haris Rauf has to improve upon, explained the reasons for Hassan Ali's lackluster performances during the ICC T20 World Cup and his hopes of coaching Pakistan and a Pakistan Super League side in the near future.
By Saj Sadiq (1st March, 2022)
PakPassion.net: How was the experience of the role of Bowling Consultant for Pakistan at the ICC T20 World Cup?
Vernon Philander: The Pakistan players were a pleasure to work with, so I really had no problems at all in fulfilling this role. In terms of the role itself, given my experience it wasn’t that difficult a task. As someone who played cricket at the highest level, I understand the requirements of this type of role, and am keenly aware of the way the guys need to be trained and pushed a little bit and even when some guys need to be dragged back a little bit. With experience you also understand the dynamics of international cricket and the mindsets needed for players to perform at the optimum level in international cricket.
To be honest at the outset, it was uncharted territory as I didn’t know exactly what I was letting myself in for. However, things improved rapidly once I got into the environment starting with a week in Lahore and then onto Dubai where I started to do some bonding with the guys and got to know them on a personal level. What I quickly discovered was that the guys had a great hunger to learn and get better using my international experience as a guide.
Vernon Philander: First of all, it was important for me to learn about the personal backgrounds of the players and in that sense, coming myself from a relatively modest background gave me a good perspective of their situation. Interacting in this way almost allows them into your space and you get a good sense of which areas you can tap into with them and get the best out of these players. So, leading into the tournament, I could see that all these guys had phenomenal attributes and it was for me to sit down with each individual and make them understand what I see were the areas that they can really improve upon. I didn’t really have much time during this assignment so didn’t want to harp on about technique and get into too much detail, but I think for me it was more about what can I take that we already have in terms of positives and make it even better for the players. We all know that the Pakistan bowlers have always had talent and pace and having to work with these two attributes is a massive plus at the outset and when you add a little consistency to that then all of a sudden - boom – and off you go!
PakPassion.net: Were you satisfied with Pakistan’s performance at the ICC T20 World Cup?
Vernon Philander: We had a phenomenal tournament and am very fortunate to be part of that experience. A lot of people said that we would be knocked out in the Group Stage, but I feel the brand of cricket and the freedom that Pakistan played with in that tournament was amazing and proved everyone wrong. Speaking specifically about bowling, you could see the huge strides the bowlers made throughout the tournament so really for me the only challenge was to learn about them and help them get better because at the end of the day, bowling is an individual’s responsibility. So, it’s down to the bowler to think how I can get better every time I go out there.
At the end of the day, T20 cricket is a funny game, and you don’t know which batter will get hold of you on a particular day but as a bowler it’s your job to make sure not to give it away totally to the opposition and how to stay in the fight. I feel that our guys did a phenomenal job throughout the tournament and could have done better if we had some luck going our way but overall, it was a great experience to be with the Pakistan side and they genuinely are a great bunch of guys to work with.
PakPassion.net: How highly do you rate Shaheen Shah Afridi and how far can he go in his international career?
Vernon Philander: Shaheen is truly a phenomenal talent. Like I mentioned earlier, there are some guys you need to push and others you need to get to pull back a little and he is certainly the latter. He will bowl all day, he will run all day and he has so much good energy and as I mentioned to him on a couple of occasions as well, it would be great to channel that force into even better energy and performances. What I mean by this is that whilst Shaheen is one of the fittest guys around, what I would like him to do is to not waste his efforts and to have a better direction in his approach as to how he can train better and plan his bowling spells. To me he has some great skills as a left-armer bowling upfront and seaming the ball in for the right-hand batters which is a skill we have not seen in international cricket in the recent past. So having that skill in your armoury is a massive advantage.
PakPassion.net: What was the main advice you gave to Shaheen Shah Afridi?
Vernon Philander: I encouraged him to go for it, to go for gold. In my view, in T20 cricket if you can knock down 2 or 3 batters in the powerplay then you put yourself and the team ahead in the game which he did consistently at the T20 World Cup. He is a special bowler because he can bowl with the new ball, old ball, bowl Yorkers or slower balls. However, even with these skills available to him, at the end of the day it’s down to him to think carefully and assess the situation and be a bit smart about how he will go about it in certain conditions. He is just 21 years old and has the skills that we all wish we had when we were his age. I have no doubts that he will be an excellent leader for Pakistan’s bowling attack for a long time to come.
PakPassion.net: What changes does Haris Rauf need to make to further improve himself?
Vernon Philander: With Haris, whilst he certainly has raw pace, it’s all about sitting him down and making him understand his own skill sets and then explain to him how he can use those skills depending on the situation. He can bowl at more than 150Kph and has an unbelievable Yorker but the ball I felt was most under-utilized by him is the bouncer. So, I told him to bowl the bouncer and hit the batters on their heads because that delivery on its own sends a clear message. I can see that he has become better since the T20 World Cup and his record speaks for itself. The problem he had when I worked with him was in bowling the first over after the powerplay as I felt that he didn’t know how to go about it. So, we sat down with him and told him that his strength was the ability to bowl a quick bouncer and also bowling a good back of a length ball. With him coming after the new ball bowlers, he always felt that he had to swing the ball, but we advised him to eliminate a bit of swing because once you are looking for swing, then you are offering a little bit of width which comes with its own issues.
PakPassion.net: Haris Rauf certainly does offer something different doesn’t he?
Vernon Philander: Absolutely, and I tell you what, you can teach Haris all other skills, but what we cannot teach him is to bowl 150Kph plus that he can do by himself, which gives him a huge advantage over others. It’s hard to teach someone who can bowl at that speed to be more lethal than he already is. All I can guarantee you is that no batter wants to see a short ball bowled at them at that speed. I also spoke to him about having the right mindset and gave him my example. Every time I had the ball in my hand, I would look to send a clear message that I am here to compete and win and when I did that, it was tough for the batters to really get themselves in as opposed to getting the time and space to “feel” themselves into the innings. This is exactly what Haris and I discussed as one of the ways he can improve his effectiveness.
PakPassion.net: Was Hassan Ali unfairly blamed for Pakistan’s loss to Australia in the Semi-Final?
Vernon Philander: I wouldn’t put the loss to that one dropped catch as there were some run-out opportunities as well which were not taken by Pakistan. Had those opportunities been taken the outcome of the game could well have been completely different so it was extremely unfair to pin the blame of that loss on one particular player. Obviously, Australia came out and played a magnificent game, but I look back at that match and I see that there were about 4 run-out opportunities until the 10th over and had we taken even one of those it may well have been a different result. In fact, Matthew Hayden and I had discussed this with the team and told them that if there was one area where we could come out short in this tournament, that would be fielding. To be fair to the guys, some very intensive fielding training sessions were held but you cannot expect to improve such shortcomings during the tournament as those are the things that you have to do way before the tournament so that it almost becomes like second nature. Just like bowling and batting, fielding is another key area Pakistan need to work on.
PakPassion.net: Hassan Ali seemed a little off colour during the ICC T20 World Cup?
Vernon Philander: We’ve all been there as international cricketers – you go through phases in your career when things just don’t go according to plan. In Hassan Ali’s case, it certainly wasn’t for lack of trying or training. I would know that as I was there with him more than anyone else. During the tournament he had a bit of a fever and was ill, so he never got the momentum he needed which affected his performance as well. Hassan is a world-class performer, and his numbers speak for themselves. You do find that every now and then that in a team where everyone is doing well, you will have someone who will have a below-par tournament for one reason or another and that is all there was in Hassan’s case.
PakPassion.net: Can Mohammad Hasnain make a comeback and relaunch his international career?
Vernon Philander: It’s really sad when these things happen. My understanding of this issue is based upon a few articles that I have read on the topic, however what I will say is that Hasnain is another phenomenal talent from Pakistan, and you don’t want to see a promising career cut short like that especially if it is an innocent mistake. I certainly don’t think he is doing it intentionally in any way. I do hope he can find some sort of help and someone who can help him remedy that action. Like I said, you cannot teach someone to bowl at those express speeds and this is one more exceptional talent that Pakistan has. I do hope he can bounce back but I feel that apart from fixing the action itself, there will also be a mental aspect of this as he will always feel that the world is watching him when he comes into bowl. I sincerely hope that the people working with him have Hasnain’s best interests at heart.
PakPassion.net: Were you offered the position of Pakistan’s Fast-Bowling Coach recently?
Vernon Philander: Yes, I was offered the role by the PCB but from a planning and execution point of view, I feel they let themselves down a bit. I received a phone call on 7th February, to inform me that they wished to appoint me as the Fast-Bowling Coach. Whilst I was flattered by this offer, I told them that I needed to know the exact job description of this role, what was expected of me and when they expected me to be there and how I could fit in with the schedule for the Pakistan team. Unfortunately, they could not give me those answers at that time so I told them that it would be extremely difficult for me to take on a job where even my potential employers did not know what they wanted from me. A couple of hours later, I got a call from them informing me that Shaun Tait had been appointed for that role. To be honest, I did have some prior obligations to consider as well but I would have been very tempted to take on the job if only the requirements and specifications were made clear to me.
PakPassion.net: Is it a role you would like to consider in the future?
Vernon Philander: Once you have developed a bond with the players at a personal level like I did with the Pakistan guys, then coaching them is something I would want to do because the personal connection with the players is an important part of the equation. If that personal connection isn’t there, then coaching pretty much can go out of the window. As a coach you need to have the trust and buy-in of the players. I certainly felt that in the time I was with the team, I developed so much trust and respect at so many levels that it was almost a non-negotiable proposition to coach these guys at some point, but unfortunately, things didn’t work out. I also spoke to Saqlain Mushtaq as well to congratulate him on being retained as Pakistan Head Coach and he immediately asked me “Where are you?”, assuming that I would have accepted the offer, such was the expectation. All said and done I am chuffed about being asked for this position and who knows, if given the opportunity again, you will see me in that position someday.
PakPassion.net: How important was the presence of Saqlain Mushtaq during yours and Matthew Hayden’s stint with the Pakistan side?
Vernon Philander: From my experience, having Saqlain Mushtaq as Head Coach at the ICC T20 World Cup was very important for us as language barriers can be an issue in such situations. In our case, we would speak to Saqlain and he would relay the message exactly as how we meant it to be. So just having an interpreter wouldn’t have worked as there was a chance of miscommunication. This is why Saqlain’s role was crucial as he had played international cricket and also worked with international teams and understood the landscape and the way we wanted to communicate certain things to players, especially at that level. As much as you want to have a friendly and toned-down interaction with players, you also want to be firm about what you demand from them and Saqlain was able to convey that message with perfection for us.
PakPassion.net: Is Saqlain Mushtaq the right choice as Head Coach for Pakistan?
Vernon Philander: To me Saqlain has done a tremendous job for Pakistan and as I told Ramiz, he needs to be the Head Coach. He has been phenomenal in the way he has approached the job, the manner in which he has been conducting himself in and around the players and there is massive respect for him amongst the players as well.
PakPassion.net: How important is the exposure to County cricket for young fast-bowlers like Shaheen Shah Afridi and Naseem Shah?
Vernon Philander: Playing in County Cricket is massively important for any cricketer because you get to play at a completely different level to what you are used to. So, in a sense you are taken out of your comfort zone as you are not at home and have a different set of guys around you. But most importantly, you are forced to “front-up” and take accountability for your performances which is a major change for many. You certainly learn more from this experience than you would by just playing domestic cricket at home where you can get by being in familiar surroundings and having the company of your teammates. When you are playing County Cricket, a lot of times the teams look up to you to perform and be the star, so a massive sense of accountability goes with that role. In my view there is no better way to learn other than being put under that sort of massive pressure. A lot of times people ask how Pakistan keeps on producing such good quality players, but I do feel that playing in the County circuit has a big part to play in that because they learn the skills and learn about themselves so when they do get a chance to play for their country, they have an extra set of skills to fall back upon.
PakPassion.net: Would you be interested in taking a coaching role in the Pakistan Super League?
Vernon Philander: Absolutely, coaching at the PSL would be something I would like to do in the near future. I recall saying before Pakistan’s game against India in the T20 World Cup that I didn’t think India had faced fast-bowling of this quality before, where you have 3 bowlers bowling at 140kph plus and are swinging the ball at those high speeds. The Pakistan Super League certainly demonstrates that fact and explains why this is so. Here you have a serious number of seam and quick bowlers in that tournament compared to what you find in other leagues such as the IPL. You have high class seam bowlers competing against each other in PSL so from a fast-bowling point of view, the tournament is phenomenal and it's certainly something I would like to be a part of, if given the opportunity.