DURBAN - The last time South Africa met Australia in a Test series, there was one glaring omission from their playing XI. Instead of playing a hand in a third consecutive series triumph in Perth and beyond in 2016, Abraham Benjamin de Villiers was at home in Pretoria, tweeting about the battle from another time-zone.
It was at a time when De Villiers had declared that his main priority was the 2019 World Cup and he needed to preserve his powers for a final assault on the ultimate prize in the game. Some feared that the batting titan was lost to red-ball cricket forever, but there has been a change of heart.
Truth be told, this is almost certainly De Villiers’ final massive Test series for South Africa, which is why this four-Test confrontation against Australia will mean even more to him. These battles against the best are still a yardstick for enduring quality.
“AB’s quality was proved recently against that Indian attack. A guy with that ability and experience, you can’t just throw away. I think even a 50 percent fit AB is going to be a massive credit for any team,” opener Dean Elgar said of the influence of the 34-year-old.
At his best, they call De Villiers ‘Mr 360’ in reference to his comfort at scoring freely all around the park. His career in the Proteas has also gone full circle as he has meandered from precocious talent with a point to prove, to senior player, then captain, before an extended absence.
Now that he is back, there appears to be a point for De Villiers to prove once more. Class, permanence, and all that.
“It is good to see him fully fit and he is a massive asset in our team. Even if he doesn’t contribute with the bat, he contributes with his words in the change-room. I am sure he is raring to go after the break, which always seems to work in his favour. He tends to come back even hungrier than when he left the game,” Elgar pointed out.
De Villiers threatened to explode against India, but few batsmen found extended joy in those conditions. There was a pivotal 80 from 121 balls at Centurion, which effectively sealed the series. There once more were the flashes of old; the checked, back-foot drive, the drilled on-drive and the late cut to vacant third-man. He looked odds-on for a century to match that of Virat Kohli, but fell 20 short.
Still, the ovation from his home crowd was extended and effusive, well aware of what he’d done.
Even now, in the autumn of his career, every team in the world still respects his freakish ability. “AB is a world-class player. He has shown that with his consistency over the years, and he has scored runs around the world,” Australian tweaker Nathan Lyon observed.
“He probably brings a lot of calmness in that middle-order and he will provide me with a massive challenge if he bats for long periods. I have always wanted to challenge myself against the best players in the world, and AB de Villiers is one of the best in the world.”
Great players live for great moments, and De Villiers has ticked off plenty on his cricketing bucket-list, ever since he made his debut 14 birthdays and 110 Test matches ago. Now, as he nears the end of a long and winding Test road, the scalp of Australia on home soil is in his headlights.
What’s more, he won’t be tweeting about this one from afar. He’ll be at the heart of it, looking to put an exclamation mark on a glittering career.
As he walked off from Monday’s middle practice, De Villiers jokingly raised his bat to the few present at Kingsmead, as he would upon reaching a milestone. “It has been a long time since I did that,” he chuckled.
“Maybe on Friday?” came the response from the benches. “Ja, boet. Maybe on Friday,” De Villiers smiled, before scooting up the stairs with a renewed spring in his step.