The rights or wrongs surrounding AB de Villiers’ reappearance for South Africa in Test cricket after an 18-month sabbatical have been all but been forgotten following his magnificent 126* at Port Elizabeth in the second Test against Australia. It was his innings that put daylight between South Africa and Australia and it, along with Kagiso Rabada’s 11 wickets, went a long way to winning the match for South Africa and squaring the series.
When he arrived at the crease with the score at 155-3 following a steady stand of 88 between Hashim Amla and Dean Elgar, the game was nicely set. Some of the commentators had been critical of South Africa’s slow scoring rate during the previous session but they had put themselves in a position to seize control of the match. However, in the following over Elgar was dismissed to leave South Africa 155-4 and Australia regained control.
Australia were bowling superb reverse swing as a pack and, spearheaded by Mitchell Starc, they squeezed the South African middle order; all of them, that is, bar de Villiers. In nearly all sports the greats of the game just make it look so much easier than the rest. As Faf du Plessis commented on in the post-match interview, “it seemed that AB was playing on a different pitch to everyone else,” and it certainly seemed the case.
It was an innings that featured resolute defence aligned with supreme shot selection and execution. His ability to score all round the wicket proved particularly taxing for Steve Smith’s captaincy on Sunday morning as every time he attempted to contain him, de Villiers simply picked another gap to score in. It was a masterclass in counter attacking cricket against what is one of the best bowling attacks around.
Frequently in the modern game counter attacking involves brutal hitting and not a lot else. What was so impressive about de Villiers’ onslaught was the timing and the shot selection he used. He scored at a strike rate of 83 and from his 146 balls he hit 20 fours and one six. He rotated the strike well but kept getting new partners at the other end as wickets kept falling at regular intervals.
On Sunday morning he was able to cut loose but the hard work had been done the night before. What is so striking about de Villiers when he moves through the gears is that he still plays authentic cricket shots. His timing becomes everything, and the speed of his hands allow him to place the ball wherever he wants. The skills that have made him so revered in white ball cricket were on display as South Africa’s lead approached 100.
There are few players, if any, playing the game currently who can play an innings as skilful as the one he produced. As the players left the field, Mark Nicholas commented that, “the word great is bandied around far too frequently in the modern game, but that truly was a great innings from AB de Villiers.”
With rumours circulating that de Villiers could retire from Test cricket at the end of this series, it seems that this series might be one last hurrah from one of the most talented players to have picked up a bat in the last few decades. If so, he looks set to depart on the highest of notes.
By Andy Hunter