Cape Town – The class-apart, first-innings model … or the rather hare-brained, short-lived second?
Which “version” of the still globally-appealing AB de Villiers pitches up at St George’s Park from Friday might have a critical influence on the Proteas’ desperate quest to strike back in the second Test against Australia.
There has been all sorts of trash-talk in the air, something that began during what we now know was a particularly acrimonious first clash – at least involving certain individuals - at Kingsmead, so there will be a special crackle around the so-called Friendly City in anticipation of the next slug-out.
De Villiers, at least by reputation, generally steers clear of noticeable sledging flashpoints – at least ones that have punitive consequences - in international cricket, preferring to let his bat do the talking in its often scorching way.
That phenomenon, frankly, is what the entire specialist South African batting line-up need to show in the Port Elizabeth Test, raising their collective game to levels surprisingly not witnessed for a long time – and often enough to the country’s detriment more recently in the Test arena.
There is increasing pressure –especially after young Aiden Markram’s contrastingly stirring breakthrough against a heavyweight foe in Durban - on the most senior personnel to come good after erratic (often at best) spells.
De Villiers and Hashim Amla, of course, comfortably head that pile in terms of experience, though Amla may be just a little preoccupied right now by how often he is falling to the Aussie seamer Josh Hazlewood – now six times in seven innings against him and with the usually dominating figure not managing to reach even 50 in any single instance they have locked horns.
At least De Villiers (though admittedly he missed the away series triumph of 2016/17) is not wrestling any special Baggy Greens’ bogeyman of his own; he is more mentally freed to put a major stamp on the second Test.
Yet the crowd-pleasing figure’s palpably “hot and cold” own showing in the Kingsmead reverse also summarised how patchily he has fared since his celebrated return to Test whites over the Festive Season after an absence of not far short of two years.
De Villiers has largely looked comfortable, and occasionally shown signs of the kind of command that saw him easily average above the 50-mark in the format for a significant period (he has now dropped back to only a fraction ahead of the coveted figure, at 50.05).
But as age possibly just begins to take a minor toll on his 34-year-old body, a really major vigil in weight-of-numbers terms has also eluded him since the comeback against Zimbabwe at very same St George’s Park from Boxing Day.
Starting with 53 against the humble, hopelessly outgunned neighbours, De Villiers has smouldered more than he has genuinely sparkled, as demonstrated by a total of 335 runs from nine Test knocks (mostly against India) at a less than special average, for him, of 41.87.
Durban was typical of his relative inconsistency in the period: he admirably held together the near-lamentable SA first innings of 162 against the Australians (probably the most definitive period of the Test, when you think about it subsequently), scoring virtually half the runs alone – 71 not out when he ran out of partners – and looking so much more authoritative and unfussed than any compatriot at the crease.
But then he blotted his copybook at a horrendously inconvenient moment in the backs-to-wall second knock, setting off for the riskiest of singles as non-striker, not yet off the mark himself, and being run out with a bit to spare – the cue for an extended bout of cackling from Aussie fielders and that contemptuous “drop ball” gesture on or next to De Villiers’ sprawled-out body from Nathan Lyon.
They were simply reminders of how valued a scalp that of De Villiers is, and this one had come in the most needless, truly daft of circumstances. South Africa simply afford to leak such gifts to the Australians all over again in PE.
De Villiers has an unremarkable run-making record at St George’s Park (437 from seven Tests at 39.72), but he was also an influential figure there the last time the foes met at the venue, when the Proteas won in February 2014.
He scored 116 in the first innings, as the home nation posted the kind of insurance total after winning the toss (423) that doesn’t exactly come dime-a-dozen to them these days.
One-nil down in the current series, and Aussie spirits and aggro levels already dangerously high, the next few days would be a wonderful time for a single Proteas personality to come really expressively to the fore.
You should never bet against it being Abraham Benjamin de Villiers.
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