Phillips played cricket as a wicketkeeper at high school, but concentrated on batting once he started grade cricket. He would occasionally wicket keep and was a reserve wicketkeeper with Australian under-age teams, but soon established himself as a specialist batsman.
He made his first class debut during the 1977-78 season, when the state sides had been depleted due to World Series Cricket. Over the summer he played three Sheffield Shield matches and a single one-day match as a middle-order batsman, with a top score of 22.
Phillips did not play first class cricket again until the 1980-81 season, when he was picked for South Australia's last match of the Sheffield Shield. He made the most of his opportunity, scoring 111 and 91 as an opener against Victoria.
Phillips established himself as an opening batsman over the 1981-82 season, scoring 857 first class runs at an average of 47.61, forming a strong opening combination with Rick Darling and making an important contribution to South Australia winning the Sheffield Shield that summer.
He scored a century against the visiting Pakistan side and 260 against Queensland - the first double century from a South Australian batsman in ten years.
These results saw Phillips selected in the Australian squad to tour Pakistan that winter as a batsman and reserve keeper.
There was a spot open in the Australian batting line up as Greg Chappell was not touring. Phillips was in competition with Greg Ritchie.
A score of 92 in a tour game against the Pakistan Invitation XI saw Phillips selected to make his one-day international debut in the final match of that series. Unfortunately the game was called off due to a riot.
Phillips scored consistently throughout the 1982-83 season, scoring 680 runs at an average of 37.77. He scored centuries against New South Wales and Tasmania but was unable to break into the test team. There was an opener vacancy after Graeme Wood was dropped but the spot was given to Kepler Wessels.
Nonetheless, Phillips remained on the radar of Australian selectors. He was picked as 12th man for the 3rd test, and selected in a Young Australian side to tour Zimbabwe in early 1983 as a wicketkeeper batsman. The highlight of this tour for Phillips was scoring 135 in a one-day game. After this success, commentators started talking about Phillips as a possible Australian wicketkeeper.
Phillips was picked as opener for the first test against Pakistan during the 1983-84 summer and scored 159 in the first innings. He played for the rest of the series, ending with 362 runs at an average of 60.33, and was selected for the 1984 tour of the West Indies. During the summer he was also picked as wicketkeeper for some one day games for South Australia, which led to further calls for him to play in this position for Australia.
Rod Marsh had retired as Australia's wicketkeeper at the end of the 1983-84 season and it was expected his replacement would be Roger Woolley, who kept wicket for the first two tour games. However, the selectors were unhappy with Woolley's form and felt having Phillips as keeper would strengthen Australia's batting. This also allowed them to pick Steve Smith, who was in good form, as opener to bat alongside Kepler Wessels.
Phillips played the first test batting at number seven, top scoring in Australia's second innings with 76. After Steve Smith fell ill and was unable to play in the second test, Phillips was promoted to opener, but failed in two innings, scoring 4 and 0.
He was put back down the order again for the 3rd test, this time at number eight, with Tom Hogan batting ahead of him. The move seemed to pay off in the first innings, Phillips scoring 120 runs, including 14 fours and 4 sixes. However his effort was not enough to save the game, with Australia collapsing disastrously in the second innings. Phillips played the 4th as a specialist opener, allowing Woolley to take the gloves, but he only scored 5 and 22. Woolley's keeping did not impress and Phillips was back at behind the stumps for the 5th test, opening both innings as well, making only 12 and 2.
Phillips' wicketkeeping was generally acclaimed through the series although he was criticised for taking part in the notorious "protest" by captain Kim Hughes about not being set a winnable target in a tour game against Trinidad and Tobago.
Peter McFarline who covered the tour later said Roger "Woolley's tour with the gloves has been as poor as I have seen in this class of cricket. It resulted in Wayne Phillips, a man of talent but not yet with the capacity to understand that talent, being placed in the position of keeping as well as opening the batting."
Phillips stayed on as first choice wicketkeeper for the 1984 tour of India. He was quoted at the time saying:
From the Australian point of view, I can become the all-rounder. I don't bat and bowl but I bat and wicket-keep... Hopefully this tour will see the start of me becoming a specialist wicket-keeper. I realise I'm under enormous pressure, but I really believe I can prove I am as good as any specialist wicket-keeper in the country.
Phillips was generally held to have done a good job on the tour and also throughout the 1984-85 summer, despite an injury which saw him miss several games. His batting in the first two tests was seen as especially positive. He dislocated a finger and missed the last three tests. He was replaced by Steve Rixon but resumed his position at the end of the summer when he was better.
He was also selected on the 1985 Ashes.
At the end of the summer it was revealed that in November 1984 Phillips had signed to go on the rebel tours to South Africa over the 1985-86 and 1986-87 seasons. The tours were organised by former test batsman, Bruce Francis, who later wrote that Phillips:
Disliked keeping and would have preferred to play for Australia as a top-order batsman. By the time the tour was being put together, he had become fed up with the pressures of the modern game and was determined to make as much money as he could, as quickly as he could, and then retire. It was a revelation to me that such a fine player could be so unenthusiastic about the game.
However Phillips, along with Dirk Wellham and Graeme Wood, changed his mind after a financial inducement from Kerry Packer. (Murray Bennett changed his mind of his own accord.) For a time it was unsure whether the rest of the Australian players would agree to tour with Wellham, Phillips and Wood, but this was cleared up and the players were allowed to go to England.
Phillips was one of the few Australian players to return home with his reputation enhanced during this tour, which Australia lost 3-1. His fighting innings of 91 in the first test threatened to save the game for Australia. In the second test he came to the wicket when Australia were 5-65 chasing 127. Phillips and Border put on 51 runs, taking Australia in sight of victory, with Phillips contributing an invaluable 29 off 32 balls.
In the fifth test, another fighting knock from Phillips brought Australia 80 minutes from the safety of a draw but he was dismissed in controversial circumstances.
Phillips was kept on as Australia's wicketkeeper for the following summer against New Zealand and India. At the beginning of the season, Mike Coward wrote that "there cannot be any question about Wayne Phillips being named wicketkeeper. After all, arguably, he is the second-best batsman in the Australian team."
Phillips' batting in the second test against New Zealand helped Australia achieve a rare victory. However his form behind the stumps against the spinners was increasingly poor, and caused a drop in his confidence which in turn affected his batting. In the second test against India he missed two easy stumpings, causing Alan Border to come to his defence: "I feel sorry for Wayne," he said. "He's had a couple of bad tracks to keep on. He feels he is letting down the side. But I hope we stick with him. I don't believe there is a 'keeper in the country capable of doing any better."
Prime Minister Bob Hawke even weighed in on the issue:
We've got to have a specialist wicketkeeper and I don't mean that as any reflection on Wayne Phillips. I think an unfair burden has been placed on him. What we need to see is Australia's best keeper chosen and I think we'll see Phillips in there as a batsman and we'll get much more value from his batting when he's been relieved of that burden.
Phillips ended up being replaced by specialist keeper Tim Zoehrer on the 1986 tour to New Zealand. Cricket journalist Mike Coward wrote at the time that "Phillips, who has been the butt of much criticism and ridicule over the past 12 months... who has been severely depressed at times this season, will privately rejoice at Zoehrer's promotion".
Phillips also missed a one-day game that season due to a cracked bone in his finger.
Phillips played in all three tests of the 1986 tour of New Zealand as a specialist batsman, although he also played as wicketkeeper in the one day internationals, and one of the tour games. By now David Boon and Geoff Marsh had established themselves as openers, so Phillips batted at number three. He only passed 50 once in the tests, the third game which Australia lost after a second innings collapse. This turned out to be Phillip's last test.
He did play one last great innings for Australia, helping win the 3rd one day international. He came to the wicket with Australia at 5-142 requiring 230 to win and Steve Waugh at the other end. Waugh asked him what he thought and Phillips replied, "Simple, young fella. With my talent and your youth, we'll get these with an over to spare." The two of them put on 86 runs with Phillips scoring 53 off 32 balls, and Australia won by 3 wickets. Phillips and Waugh were voted joint man of the match. Journalist Trevor Grant, who covered the game, wrote that
Anyone who has followed the career of the South Australian left-hander and former wicketkeeper knows his capacity to turn a game. But his form has reached such a low point on this tour that it was illogical to believe he could do it at this stage of a long, demanding and utterly forgettable season. But all the exasperating uncertainty was suddenly cast aside today.
Despite his efforts, Phillips was not selected in the squad to tour India later that year and never regained his position in the Australian test or one day side.
Philips went on to score runs for South Australia until the early 1990s. He concentrated on batting although he occasionally returned to wicketkeeping.
In March 1987, he batted in partnership of 462 runs with David Hookes against Tasmania, setting an Australian record for the highest first run partnership. Phillips scored 213 not out. The runs were scored in 299 minutes off only 84.3 overs He also scored a century against the visiting English side. Despite this, he was not recalled to the national side.
He coached the Southern Redbacks for four seasons, until resigning on 16 March 2007, one season before his contract was set to expire. Under his tenure, the Redbacks' winning percentage hit 25% (10 wins, 22 losses and eight draws) and in his last season, they finished last in both the Pura Cup (winning just one match) and Ford Ranger Cup competitions.
Philiips' father Brian Phillips was a former Australian rules footballer and chairman of selectors with Sturt Football Club in the South Australian National Football League.
In 2007 Phillips accepted a position as chief fundraiser for the South Australian branch of the Liberal Party.
Phillip's promotion to wicketkeeper is generally held to have done considerable damage to his talents as a batsman. Steve Waugh later described him as:
That sporadic genuius... 'Flipper' was always upbeat and great fun to be around - except when he was driving the team bus, in a style that on occasions bordered on maniacal and broke most of the known road rules - but I could never quite work out whether his casual, laid-back attitude was genuine or a disguise for uncertainty and self-doubt.
At his peak, his good looks and ability to score fast meant he was one of the most popular Australian players, particularly with Channel Nine (who broadcast the game) and PBL (in change of marketing). Graham Halbish, an executive with the Australian Cricket Board, later wrote that:
Wayne was very popular with Channel Nine and PBL because they believed he was good value as a commercial asset. PBL rated him in the top three or so players in the country. The selectors certainly did not have him rated that highly. He was a wicketkeeper and a batsman but he was not performing to an exceptional standard, or consistently. Statistics did not equate to his profile.
Phillips still holds the Test match records for the most matches played (18) and catches taken (43) in a complete career without a stumping.