It began with 53, but that was only against Zimbabwe. Then came 65 and 35, 20 and 80. The first two on a pitch where 40 wickets fell in 230.5 overs. They were scored at a run-rate of 4.48 in a match where the average scoring rate was 3.29. The other two came on another not-quite-easy pitch, with the last innings if not a series-winning one, then at the very least a series-turning one.
It’s like AB de Villiers never left Test cricket. He had last played a Test in January 2016. When he came back, it was nearly after two years, in December 2017. Who would have thought he’d been away?
“I feel like I am in the best form of my life right now,” agreed de Villiers at the Wanderers in Johannesburg on Thursday (January 18). “You are never guaranteed results, never guaranteed five hundreds in a row. I could get five ducks in a row but I am happy where I am at. I am playing well and doing my preparation well and meeting the ball well. It’s just up to the day to take care of itself. So I feel at the best phase of my life right now.”
De Villiers feeling in the best form, or phase, of his life is bad news for an Indian team already 2-0 down in the series and hoping for a pride-salvaging win in the third Test starting on January 24. In both Tests, his batting was the most impactful for his team. South Africa were 12 for 3 at Newlands, and he not only unleashed a counter-attack but did so on Bhuvneshwar Kumar, who had taken all three scalps, hitting him off his length. In the second innings, he was the top-scorer again, only dismissed as the last man because he had to go for broke in search of runs. At SuperSport Park in Centurion, he came in at 3 for 2 in the second innings, and counter-attacked once again, not allowing India a sniff after a grand start.
“I watch the ball and I just play,” he shrugged. “I have always said that I don’t feel there’s a big difference between the three formats. It is just a mindset, applying yourself to the wicket and conditions and that’s always been the way that I have played. It’s definitely not something that I force.”
Okay, if he says so. We’ll believe he doesn’t premeditate it. We’ll even believe there isn’t much difference in formats. With the caveat that your name has to be AB de Villiers.
Paradoxically, or not perhaps, de Villiers says the extended break he took has helped revitalise him. And he’s almost feeling like a debutant, having captained and kept wickets against Zimbabwe, and then gone back to the middle order against India with Faf du Plessis fit again.
“It feels like my debut back in 2004 when I started as an opening batsman, then a ‘keeper at No.7 and back to opening, and up and down,” smiled de Villiers. “It’s funny with my comeback now similar to back in the day. But it has been very enjoyable, I feel very fresh, and I have said it on numerous occasions in the last few months that I just feel like just getting out there and playing. That’s what a good break does to you. I am feeling in a good space and the energy is good and my body is feeling right at the moment. I do have niggles but that is part of Test cricket. You never get up feeling a 100%. The back is still there, the ankles and knees, everything is hurting at times but to be playing the ultimate form of the game again it has been a great challenge.”
What is different from the debut a fresh-faced youngster of 20 made in 2004 is that he has fresh-faced youngsters around him in the team. And from being the one who absorbed the veterans’ experience then, he’s the one handing down advice now.
“I love having an impact on some of the youngsters in the team and to drive them,” he said. “Hopefully one day, they will remember that old guy who had a good impact on me. There is a great group of senior players at the moment. Guys who have the good hearts and the right intentions to take this team to higher levels and to newer grounds. So they are there for the right reasons.
“I love contributing and impacting people’s lives around me and I see that role in the side for me now and for all the senior players,” he went on. “Faf has been leading the side well, there is confidence as well, and it is easy to fit in as the senior player because I was captain not long ago and I know what the captain needs from his senior players. The kind of energy you need and the kind of advice you need at times and also sometimes also to get out of the captain’s space. So I understand that’s natural. All of us have been leaders in the past and I think we really work together well as a team.”
But while he’s slipped easily into the role of the experience pro, de Villiers showed that his sense of humour was still intact. Asked how much a 3-0 sweep would mean given South Africa’s tour of India in 2015, he quipped: “I can’t remember what happened, what happened in 2015? Oh we won the ODI series, yeah” to peals of laughter, before getting more serious.
“It would be great. India have really impressed me and surprised us in terms of the bowling department, so they have showed lot more skill and definitely there is lot more pace than we expected,” he admitted. “So we know we are going to have to be watchful in that last Test. They will come out fighting and wanting to finish well in the Test series and wanting to take that confidence into the ODIs, but obviously we would love to beat them 3-0. But you are never guaranteed of a result. We know we are going to have to dig deep again and make sure that like in the last two Tests, we adapt to the conditions and put in our best type of cricket in the conditions.”