De Villiers' mastery puts South Africa ahead


11 March, 2018 15:56 PM

De Villiers' mastery puts South Africa ahead

AB de Villiers scored his 22nd Test century, South Africa v Australia. Photo: AFP

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At tea, this day of Test cricket was bereft of life. It was not pining for the fjords, it had simply ceased to be.

As Dean Elgar and Hashim Amla crawled along at 1. 65 per over in the middle session, the only action of note came when the umpires tried to silence the brass band in the crowd. The musicians left the ground - at last, a controversial dismissal to generate some interest - but nothing could revive that particular session of cricket. It had run down the curtain and joined the now-invisible choir.

And then for something completely different. After tea the ball started reverse-swinging, the wickets began to tumble, and the runs flowed. From 43 runs, two fours and no wickets between lunch and tea, suddenly there were 110 runs, 17 boundaries and five wickets between tea and stumps. AB de Villiers sprinted to a 62-ball half-century - by way of comparison, Elgar had taken 164 deliveries - and by stumps South Africa were in the lead. Had Amla and Elgar stayed together South Africa would have been lucky to be in the lead by stumps on day three.

It was a curious day's play, not so much slow burn as spontaneous combustion. As soon as the players returned from tea, the ball reversed. Mitchell Starc curled the fourth delivery of the session past Amla's bat to bowl him for 56 from 148 balls, and in the next over, Josh Hazlewood enticed an edge behind from Elgar for 57 off 197 deliveries. And suddenly the game opened up. As if to signal the change, de Villiers drove the next ball for four through cover.

Even as de Villiers moved the score along, wickets kept falling at the other end. Mitchell Marsh, whose sole wicket in Durban was his first in Test cricket for more than a year, snapped up two in two overs, reversing one in to trap Faf du Plessis lbw for 9 and then trapping Theunis de Bruyn in front for 1. Quinton de Kock on 9 was done in by a beautiful offbreak from Nathan Lyon, drifting, turning and beating the bat to clip his off stump.

But by stumps, de Villiers had found a capable partner, and his stand with Vernon Philander was worth 36. They had moved the total along to 263 for 7, with de Villiers on 74 from 81 balls, Philander on 14, and South Africa's advantage sitting at 20 runs. And although he had support here and there, de Villiers was responsible for that scoreline.

He struck 14 boundaries and was typically powerful square of the wicket through the off side, also driving and pulling handsomely. It was an innings that would not have been out of place in a one-day international, and if he goes on to turn it into a century on day three it could be the match-defining performance. Already he had delivered South Africa from a position of stagnation to a position of strength.

The day had stared with Elgar and nightwatchman Kagiso Rabada at the crease, and although it was a disappointing morning for Rabada off the field - he was hit with a level two Code of Conduct charge and could be suspended for the rest of the series for his shoulder bump with Steven Smith on day one - he enjoyed the chance to bat up the order and struck 29 before he chopped on to the bowling of Pat Cummins.

It was the only wicket that would fall for the first two sessions, as Amla and Elgar painstakingly put together their 88-run partnership. Twice Amla was adjudged lbw only to be reprieved on review, first on 7 when he was found to have been struck outside the line of off stump by Cummins, and then on 40 when he had gained a thick inside edge onto his pad off Hazlewood.

Amla brought up his fifty from his 122nd delivery and Elgar got there from his 164th with an edge through the slips for four - one of only two boundaries in the middle session. It felt as though while South Africa had wickets in hand, they had also failed to make the most of reasonable batting conditions. The loss of both Amla and Elgar within two overs after tea could have led to a collapse to reverse-swing, but for the counterattacking talent of de Villiers.

In the end, South Africa found themselves ahead, the brass band was reinstated, and the day of Test cricket was revived.