South Africa cruised past Australia, New Zealand and Sri Lanka in the absence of their arguably best batsman across formats, AB de Villiers. There was little worry when they beat Australia in Australia with de Villiers’ schoolmate and captain Faf du Plessis hogging the limelight with his charismatic leadership.
JP Duminy, floundering in the Test team, was handed more responsibility by getting pushed to No 4, and he responded well at the start.
Then came the big tour of England and in the absence of Faf du Plessis at the helm, South Africa lost heavily in the series opener at Lord's. Fans attributed the loss to the absence of du Plessis and all seemed well when the skipper returned at Trent Bridge to crush England by a mammoth 340 runs.
Such was the impact of the loss that England ushered in as many as three new players before the next Test. South Africa were up and running again and du Plessis was seen sporting his elegant swagger as he walked in for the toss at The Oval in the third Test with the series level at 1-1.
But things went awry for South Africa from there. They lost the remaining two Tests, both by fairly big margins and the No 4 and 5 spots have come under heavy scrutiny. Duminy, who played at 4 at Lord's was replaced by de Kock when du Plessis returned at Trent Bridge and the move reaped instant success.
But one more Test later, South Africa were searching for new options as de Kock failed to stamp the position down. They went for Temba Bavuma, their most stable batsman these days in Test cricket and although not a roaring success, Bavuma showed that he could grow into the role.
To conclude, the Proteas tried three players at the same position in four Tests. Duminy, de Kock and Bavuma. None of them could own the position in the given opportunities and the middle-order has looked clumsy and fumbling against the impeccable England seamers.
Right through the Australia and New Zealand away tours, South Africa found atleast two of their middle-order batsmen stepping up when it mattered. That wasn't the case here. The constant shuffling of batting order could also have been a reason.
But do South Africa need this mess? Why are they forced to keep hunting for the right men when the best batsman in the country is resting on his couch and cheering away his teammates on Twitter? C’mon, it doesn't make sense. Isn't there one influential guy in the South African setup who could bring back de Villiers from his self-enforced hiatus? Maybe not.
Whatever said and done, South Africa are starting to show that they haven't filled the de Villiers sized hole left in their Test middle-order. As flamboyant and elegant as he is, de Villiers could play any kind of role. After all, he churned out a 33 off 220 balls with no boundaries to save a Test match. The same man who holds the record for the fastest hundred in ODI cricket (off 31 balls) shrugged off his aggression, married tranquility and put on a defensive display that would put textbooks on cricket batting to shame.
It is that kind of defiance and temperament that South Africa lack in this current line-up. Sure they have some really talented guys in the team who can win Test matches anywhere in the World for their country. But when the odds are stacked against them and the pressure is mounting, they need a de Villiers, and badly.
No offence to du Plessis, who is a wonderful, wonderful cricketer, but all of his class, stability and composure combined cannot trump the advantage that the sheer presence of de Villiers brings to the team.
He is more than a firefighter or a big hitter. He switches between roles, understands situations and adapts his game accordingly. There is little weakness in this ‘Superman’. He plays pace and spin equally well, sweeps, hooks, drives, flicks and does all this in reverse as well.
For all his unorthodox methods at the crease, de Villiers has a solid defence and an even more shrewd judgement outside off-stump. He is a dream cricketer. A combination of Rohit Sharma's talent and Virat Kohli's batsmanship.
At 33, he shouldn't be sitting at home and tweeting away. He should be in whites, greens and pinks playing for the Proteas. He should be pushing himself to play in all formats. After all, he is an immensely fit cricketer. There is the odd back issue that perturbs him but it is in no way a hindrance to extending his career by atleast four more years.
“I will be there for the ODIs, and I'm definitely not retiring from Test cricket because I have plans to come back at some stage. For me, for now the most important thing is the 2019 World Cup”, de Villiers had stated when announcing his break from Test cricket.
At a later stage, before the England series, he remarked that he would discuss with CSA and “make a final decision about what happens for the next few years”. He had clearly sided Russell Domingo in the recent head coach conundrum and there are indications to suggest that he might be pondering retiring from Tests forever.
That would, infact, be a relief to South Africa because so much noise has been made in the background about de Villiers’ self-enforced break. But they so need the ‘Superman’ to return in whites. Australia tours South Africa in March next year before which there is an Indian series as well, both of which de Villiers had said he intends to play in. But with Domingo departing it remains to be seen of de Villiers still wants to play Test cricket.
"I would love AB to play — we all know how good he is and we missed him, but we've spent too much time talking about when he is going to come back. The hope of him coming back is something we need to move past, we need to find someone else to fulfill that role. If AB comes back it's a huge bonus but I don't expect him to come back into the Test team," du Plessis had said after the fourth and final Test against England as revealed in ESPNCricinfo.
Given the crisis South Africa are in at the moment it is sad to see their biggest player stepping aside and watching the fun on television. He should be in the heat of things, reviving the side and grooming the younger ones, who look lost in the absence of guidance. South Africa need de Villiers and more than ever, right now.
True, he wishes to extend his career till the 2019 World Cup. True, he wishes to lift that elusive trophy in England two years later. But at 33, he is fit enough and motivated enough to play across formats. His body needs the regular workout. Test cricket could even propel his ODI form, which has somewhat waned off in the past few months. But if de Villiers is adamant on his decision, then the sport, and not just the Proteas, has lost a stunning, swashbuckling star cricketer. For South Africa, it will be about filling a de Villiers sized hole in their middle-order. Eleven men may not be enough to do that.