Steven Smith, Virat Kohli, Kane Williamson and Joe Root. The 'Fab Four’ of modern day cricket earned their right to the moniker due to their incredible consistency over the years. They had supposedly overtaken the likes of Amla and de Villiers with their gargantuan hunger for runs and unending quest for challenges.
“All four have similar talent, hunger, ambition and responsibility. All four will go on to captain their countries. All four will reach peak form in a few years' time, and then the real battle will commence as to who will be the No. 1 batsman in the world”, Martin Crowe emphatically wrote for ESPNCricinfo four years ago.
Most of it came true. Each of them went on to captain their country and achieved significant landmarks on the cricket field. But why would the best batsmen in cricket always be restricted to four? What about the modern day marvel called AB de Villiers who had chiseled his name into cricketing history? Did the Test hiatus mean that he is longer among the best in the world?
The partnership between Dean Elgar and Hashim Amla spanned 46.2 overs and yielded 88 runs on the second day of the second Test in Port Elizabeth. The duo showed aptitude and temperament and fought their way against the unabating Aussie bowling attack under the scorching sun.
However, such ball-consuming partnerships have a folly. When a wicket eventually falls, there would not only be few runs to show for but also immense pressure on the next batsman. When Amla and Elgar perished in the space of two overs, it seemed like South Africa were folding. Most teams would if Starc was holding an old red cherry in his hand. Reverse swing was on and the Proteas had struggled against Starc and his mastery over the skill to no end at Durban.
Enter AB de Villiers. He barely had two sighters before he came onto the front foot, read Starc's swing, and effortlessly punched the drive to the cover boundary. The battle had begun. Even as the off-field drama between David Warner and Quinton de Kock reached ludicrous heights and hogged all the headlines post the Durban Test, a laidback, almost carefree tweet from AB de Villiers caught attention.
“This series will be one to remember,” de Villiers commented beneath a tweet that showed a video footage of Warner going full throttle at the stairway in Kingsmead.
Most thought he was talking about the rapidly deteriorating bonhomie between the two on-field-turned-off-field foes. After his counter-punching, out-of-the-world hundred at Port Elizabeth, one feels that he might well have been talking about his own batting.
Everything Australia threw at de Villiers backfired. He was in his zone, batting like a dream and the very notion of 'Fab Four’ smashed to smithereens. He dominated Pat Cummins, who was bowling an exceptional spell, bludgeoned Mitchell Starc, whose reverse swing was too hot to handle for most, pushed Josh Hazlewood off his channels and rendered Nathan Lyon non-existent.
In Vernon Philander and Keshav Maharaj, de Villiers found two contrasting, yet reliable allies. The lack of fight from the lower-order had denied the South African crowd of de Villiers’ panache in Durban. The last five wickets fell for 12 runs in the first innings of the first Test as he helplessly watched from the other end while being unbeaten on a well-orchestrated 71.
This time around, though, there was no backing off. The lower-order hung around and de Villiers scored at a strike rate of 86.3. The 22nd Test ton was a mere formality.
Most innings require a statistical validation in the form of a three-figure mark. de Villiers’ spectacle in Port Elizabeth barely needed it. Century or not, the extraordinary composition that unfolded on the very ground where he hit a hundred four years back against the same opposition forced even David Warner to applaud in wonderment.
AB de Villiers had well and truly returned to Test cricket. He was the difference between the sides a month ago when South Africa beat India. He had been the striking presence in South Africa's middle-order as Mitchell Starc unleashed his wrath with the old ball at Kingsmead. But none of that would stand up against the special, eye-pleasing, prodigious knock that his sixth Test ton against Australia proved to be.
That all of this uncoiled before the Bradmanesque Steven Smith, who has virtually gone obscure in this series, further stamps the colossal brilliance of the South African batsman. While the ‘Fab Four’ including Smith ooze class and finesse when on song, de Villiers’ extraordinary return to the Test fold makes one wonder if there are just the four fabulous batsmen in the world. Maybe, it's a Fab Five now. But after his breathtaking innings spread across the weekend, it is more like de Villiers and the others.