Vernon Philander has admitted that interference in selection ahead of the 2015 World Cup semi-final, and the recent crises at Cricket South Africa (CSA) both contributed to hastening his retirement, which took place last month. In an extensive interview with Afrikaans weekly Rapport, Philander confirmed he would have considered playing longer but opted to end his international career and sign a Kolpak deal, because “too many things went wrong” in the country’s cricket administration.
“As a player you get to the point where you’ve had enough,” Philander said. “Cricket SA’s previous administration only looked after themselves; the players were the last people they worried about. Too many things went wrong and I had to decide what was the best way forward for me. I am 34 and have a good career behind me, but I would have considered playing longer if it wasn’t for the chaos in our cricket administration.”
Though CSA’s long-running battle with the South African Cricketers’ Association, which centred on the now-scrapped proposed domestic restructure, ended last week, the relationship between players and administrators has been strained for several years. In 2015, trust between players and administrators severely broke down when, on the eve of South Africa’s semi-final against New Zealand, former CEO Haroon Lorgat contacted the national team selectors to remind them of their transformation commitments. Ultimately, that resulted in Kyle Abbott, South Africa’s best bowler at the tournament, being left out and Philander, who had nursed a hamstring injury throughout the competition, included in the starting XI.
Speaking for the first time on the incident, Philander revealed he didn’t think he should have played. “It’s difficult for me to look back on that,” he said. “I blatantly and openly told the coach that the best player must play. He told me, ‘you’re the best man for the day, you play’. But they were clearly not open and honest with me and Kyle. There were things happening behind closed doors.”
South Africa lost the match on the penultimate ball, ending what was considered by many to be their best chance to win a World Cup. Philander only played three more ODIs, later in 2015, and was not considered in the format again. And in early 2017, just as Abbott had nailed down a regular Test spot, he signed a Kolpak deal and ended his international career.
Philander traces those repercussions back to what happened before the semi-final and although he and Abbott remain friends, neither felt the same about CSA since. “When I go to Durban, I have a beer with Kyle. There are no hard feelings between us two. But the point is: Cricket SA must sort out their stuff. What happened was a knock to both of us.”
“I blatantly and openly told the coach that the best player must play. He told me, ‘you’re the best man for the day, you play’. But they were clearly not open and honest with me and Kyle”
Performance-wise, they have both recovered, with Abbott dominating on the county scene – including 17 wickets in one match for Hampshire against Somerset last summer – and Philander finishing as South Africa’s seventh-highest Test wicket-taker, but South Africans may always wonder if there could have been more from both of them.
Philander, in particular, struggled with his fitness towards the latter stages of his career and seems to have grown increasingly disillusioned with the way the team was handled during former coach Ottis Gibson’s tenure, which ran from 2017 to 2019. “The administrators became too involved with the game and the players,” he said. “It was also easier for them to target Ottis because he’s a foreigner. They could tell it him, “Do this, do that.”
The transformation targets, specifically the black African component, has been highlighted in the last two years with former CEO Thabang Moroe understood to have wanted a significant say in team composition. Moroe currently faces allegations of mismanagement and his position is occupied by acting CEO Dr Jacques Faul, under whom large-scale changes have taken place.
Former captain Graeme Smith is acting as director of cricket and is likely to accept the job permanently post a commentary stint at the IPL, Mark Boucher has been appointed head coach until 2023 and “credibility”, in Philander’s words, is returning, but too late for him to reconsider.
“Hopefully we will see a turnaround in the administration and on the playing field,” he said. “We must put out heads together and decide which direction we are going in. Hopefully we can make the path for younger players better.”
That suggests Philander is still interested in staying involved in South African cricket in some capacity, something Smith was at pains to say he would welcome. Philander has committed himself to Somerset for the upcoming English summer but with Kolpak deals set to be nullified at the end of the year, he may be available for the South African set-up sooner than expected, if the money is right.
“In successful teams like Australia, England and India, former players are involved but in South Africa, we lost our former players to other countries where they do coaching because the money is much better,” Philander said. “We have to decide what we are willing to pay to keep former players in the country and ensure that our cricket goes forward again.”
Even if Philander is not absorbed into CSA’s systems, he will continue to do work through his foundation which seeks to use sport to provide alternatives to young people in previously disadvantaged areas of the Cape. Philander is from that part of South Africa and said his background of “learning to survive” is behind his drive to make a difference.
“We try to give children other routes away from gangs, drugs and alcohol. I say to myself that I can’t help everyone in the whole world but if I can help one or two, it’s something.”