South Africa star batsman AB de Villiers proved he is still on top of his game in Test cricket despite taking a near two-year break from the longest format.
De Villiers scored an unbeaten 126 against a potent Australian pace attack in the Port Elizabeth Test on Sunday – his first Test century in three years – to show what the South Africans will miss once he decides to give up red-ball cricket for good sometime this season. The ongoing series is being seen as the last ‘big’ Test series for ABD. “My dream plan is to come back for those Test matches [against India and Australia] and that’s all I can say for now,” he had said in January 2017.
Test cricket has not been a top priority for De Villiers for a couple of seasons. A long-standing back injury plus the demands of playing all formats and various T20 leagues put an immense strain on his body. Unfortunately, he took a near two-year break from the longest format after the 2015-16 season.
De Villiers made a comeback to Test cricket last year. Since his comeback against Zimbabwe in December, the 34-year old has made 461 runs in 10 innings at an average of 57.62.
Most of the runs have been made on some of the toughest wickets seen in South Africa in recent times and against the high quality attacks of India and Australia.
So far this series de Villiers has made 197 runs at a strike rate of 71.89 without being dismissed by a bowler #SAvAUS— Daniel Brettig (@danbrettig) March 11, 2018
In Port Elizabeth on Sunday, De Villiers got good support from the tail as South Africa took a lead of 139 after being dismissed for 382.
Seamer Vernon Philander (36) and left-arm spinner Keshav Maharaj (30) helped De Villiers add 84 for the eighth and 58 for the ninth wicket as South Africa pushed ahead.
Australia’s fast bowlers struggled against a rampant De Villiers who played strokes all around the wicket. He hit 20 fours and a six in a 146-ball innings. It was his 22nd Test century and sixth against Australia.
But more than the runs, it has been the manner in which he has scored them – looking completely at ease while everyone else struggles to put bat to ball – is what has stood out since his comeback. If these indeed are some of the final few Test knocks from De Villiers, we need to savour every bit of it. AB has shown Test cricket needs him more than the other way around.
South Africa were 263 for seven at the close, a lead of 20 runs after Australia were bowled out for 243 in their first innings.
There was a flurry of wickets after tea but De Villiers counter-attacked to hit 74 not out off 81 balls with easily the most aggressive batting of an otherwise slow day.
“He’s an amazing player,” said Australian all-rounder Mitchell Marsh. “He’s done it for so long. We need to find a way to nullify him as quickly as possible. That’s going to be a great challenge for us. Hopefully we can find a way to get him out.”
It was the second outstanding innings in the series by De Villiers, who made 71 not out in the first innings of the first Test in Durban before being run out for nought in the second innings as South Africa slipped to a 118-run defeat.
De Villiers’ innings was in complete contrast to the struggles of his teammates against superb reverse swing bowling. Dean Elgar made 57 and Hashim Amla scored 56, but they took 197 and 143 balls respectively to do it.
Only one wicket, that of nightwatchman Kagiso Rabada, fell between the start of play and the afternoon tea break. But it was painfully slow going. Only 43 runs were scored in 26 overs between lunch and tea, before a flurry of wickets and De Villiers’ batting enlivened the evening’s play.
“I thought the middle session was as good (an example of) Test cricket as you will see. We weren’t taking wickets but we felt in the game the whole session. South Africa batted extremely well to get through that period when the ball was reverse swinging and then we got our rewards later in the day,” added Marsh.
AB de Villiers in Tests since his comeback:— Bharath Seervi (@SeerviBharath) March 10, 2018
5 50s in 10 innings.
No big knocks, but very influential as most of these have been low-scoring Tests. #SAvAus
Amla also hailed the quality of the cricket. “Today was a tough day of Test cricket and I think those people who are Test match lovers will appreciate the skill of the bowlers and at times, especially when AB was batting, the skill of the batting,” he said.
South Africa’s quest for a series-levelling win was given added impetus by a pending disciplinary hearing which could result in fast bowler Rabada being banned for the remaining two Tests after his shoulder made contact with Australian captain Steve Smith on Friday.
Australia were frustrated for long periods by Elgar Amla, but the tourists were right back in the game after tea.
Amla was bowled by a fast, reverse swinging yorker from Mitchell Starc for 56 four balls after tea and Elgar was caught behind off Josh Hazlewood for 57 in the next over. Like Amla, Elgar fell to a full delivery which swung late.
Medium-pacer Marsh trapped South African captain Faf du Plessis and Theunis de Bruyn leg before wicket, again with full, swinging deliveries.
De Villiers and Quinton de Kock put on 44 for the seventh wicket before De Kock was bowled by off-spinner Nathan Lyon with a ball which spun sharply past the outside edge of his bat.
While other batsmen had struggled to gain any momentum to the South African innings, De Villiers looked at ease and played strokes to all parts of the ground in reaching a half-century off 62 balls with ten fours. By the close he had faced 81 balls and hit 14 boundaries.
Australia delayed taking the second new ball until the 90th over but De Villiers and Vernon Philander survived until the close.
England have been playing one-day international cricket since 1971. The Three Lions lost the first-ever ODI in history to arch-rivals Australia in Melbourne. That five-wicket loss set the tone for what was to come.
From there to mid-2015, their 1992 World Cup final appearance against Pakistan aside, 50-over competition had been the Achilles heel of English Cricket. Those heels dragged along for too long, leaving a trail of failures.
England chopped, changed and searched for answers to get better, but other ODI nations progressed to extend that withering trail.
Winding the clock back doesn’t bring to the fore resplendent memories for England fans but it’s worth reminding that for all the disappointments that were easier to shrug off, three years and one day ago to be precise, the nation’s cricket lovers experienced what it felt like to hit rock bottom. That came when Bangladesh paceman Rubel Hossain had just sent James Anderson’s stumps flying into the Adelaide abyss and the Tigers celebrated a famous 15-run victory in the 2015 World Cup, sending Eoin Morgan’s men crashing out in the group stages.
At that moment, English Cricket was on its knees but sometimes in life those moments – although they may not feel like that at the time – shape one’s destiny. The barometer back then was so low that it gave England the chance to draw a line under the past and get to grips with the blood and thunder attacking style of the modern game.
It’s taken three years to change the atmospheric pressure on that same barometer as a result of steady building under Morgan and head coach Trevor Bayliss, but it’s now England who are pressuring those around them to keep pace ahead of the 2019 World Cup on their own patch.
Saturday’s victory over New Zealand at the Hagley Oval sealed a 3-2 series success, England’s sixth on the bounce and ninth out of their past 10 ODI assignments. Time will fly until next May, and if England can sustain this level of form, in home conditions, hopes of a maiden 50-over World Cup triumph should spring eternal.
South Africa and India are among those who will provide strong challenges, whereas Pakistan cannot be ruled out given their ability to conjure up brilliance out of nothing and spoil a party – much like they did in the summer of 2016 when they knocked out Champions Trophy favourites England, in their own backyard, en-route to that famous final win against India at the Oval.
Too often optimism can lead to a false dawn but this feels different, England have done a lot of the ground work and talking already. Their side is made up of cricketers who back themselves to perform and deliver in those pressure moments, on the biggest stages. Jonny Bairstow, a case in point. Two back-to-back centuries, with his knock of 104 from 58 balls being the third-fastest ton by an Englishman, cementing his opener spot.
He is just one man in a line-up of settled cricketers who all seem clear with their role in the side, whether with bat and ball, and how they bring that together to the fore as a cohesive unit. Having a man with the star quality of Ben Stokes to call upon is of course a huge thing too.
Given the frenetic pace of the cricketing calendar things can unravel and change quickly but that shouldn’t worry England in the slightest as they are exactly where they want to be as an ODI force ahead of further challenges to come against Australia and India at home this summer. Big strides are being made towards the end goal.