Last week, amidst all the David Warner-Quinton de Kock staircase drama, AB de Villers took to social media to express his feelings.
“This series will be one to remember”, he wrote in reply to the Twitter handle, as the account holder demanded a bit of chin music after posting the video of the clash.
Six days later, de Villers ensured his Twitter remark would not go unnoticed by scoring a magnificent century in the first innings to lead South African to a six-wicket win over Australia and level the four-Test series one-all with two matches to play.
While de Villers was the catalyst with the willow, Kagiso Rabada continued to prove why he is the best fast bowler in the world, that too at the raw age of 22. Both de Villers and Rabada stood up and delivered when it mattered most.
On the opening day of the Test, when Australia were well placed at 161/3 with Steven Smith and Shaun Marsh well set at the crease. With the pitch losing its bite, an Australian total in excess of 300 looked imminent, but Rabada swung the pendulum back in South Africa’s favour by taking five wickets in 18 balls.
Rababa’s greatest asset, apart from his sublime skills, is his ability to out-think the batsmen. Methodically, he worked over Smith by a series of bouncers and outswingers before trapping him plumb in front.
He would do the same to Shaun Marsh and once he smelled blood, he sliced through the Australian batting. Rabada’s heroics with the ball allowed South Africa to stay ahead in the game. He had opened the door and presented his batsmen with an opportunity.
Led by the ever-gritty Dean Elgar and the ever-composed Hashim Amla, South Africa wore out the Australian bowling unit. In Durban, Starc had created havoc with the reverse-swinging ball. In Port Elizabeth, Amla and Elgar were hell-bent on not presenting the Australians with that sniff. Their partnership might have been painstaking to watch, but for close to four hours the pair ensured the battery in the Australian tank was drained by adding 88 vital runs for the third wicket.
The South African middle order once again stumbled against reverse-swing but they faced an attack that was worn out by Amla and Elgar. By the end of the second day, Australia looked jaded.
It was at that time that de Villers stamped his authority in the game. He countered-attacked the reverse-swinging ball. His ability to play late was the feature of his innings that comprised of beautiful drives, glides and nudges. Elgar and Amla absorbed the pressure and de Villers cashed in. His unbeaten 126 and his ability to bat with the tail was the difference between the two sides.
One the best aspect about de Villers' innings was the way he counter-attacked the Australian bowling at the right moments. His aggression rubbed off on Keshav Maharaj, as for the first time in the series the trio of Australian bowlers wilted under pressure. For the last two years, de Villiers had treated the world in the T20 or 50-over format. In Port Elizabeth, he rekindled that magic in white clothing and played his best innings in red-ball cricket against the best bowling attack in the world. Once again, he proved he is one of the rare breeds to be as successful in all three formats.
Once ahead in the match, South Africa continued to apply the clamps on the Australian batting. Warner has not been the same batsmen since the Proteas created a plan of bowling his middle stump and pushing the ball across him. Smith had not scored a hundred against the Proteas in his last 14 innings, Bancroft could not find a way to score freely and Shaun Marsh had become so conscious of the in-swinger from around the wicket, that he has started to nibble at balls a foot outside his off-stump.
It is full credit to the South African bowlers and the coaching staff that they managed to find the chinks in the Australian batsmen's armoury. While a large proportion can be planned, bowling is still instinctive and once again Rabada showcased his mental smartness by sniffing out any chance Australia had to comeback into the game with a deadly spell of reverse-swing bowling.
In two balls, he had discovered that Mitchell Marsh was able to cover his movement, so he immediately went wide on the crease and created that angle, so the ball could slide past Marsh’s bat. Next over, he quickly realised Cummins was fixated on the full in-swinger, so he edged him out with the short-ball that moved away from him. By the time he was taken out of the attack, the match was well and truly in South Africa’s favour.
Chasing 101, South African dressing rooms might have had a hint of nervous at 32/2, but in walked de Villers and belted three boundaries in his first 10 balls to put the result beyond doubt. De Villers was right — this series will be one to remember.