Vernon Philander knows every inch of the Newlands stadium in Cape Town. It’s his home stadium, the venue where he made his Test debut a little over 6 years ago and also the track where he has taken more than one-fourth of his total Test wickets so far. Perhaps he could be blind-folded and the medium pacer would still know where to pitch the ball. His nine-wicket match haul against India, which includes a career-best 6/42 in the second innings when the visitors were chasing 208 for a landmark triumph, was indeed worthy of landing him the ‘man of the match’ award. But was it the most telling factor that resulted in yet another South African win at Cape Town? Perhaps not.
On a pitch, where 38 out of the 40 wickets to fall were picked up by seamers within eight and a half sessions, the most significant factor had to be someone’s batting. It had to be an innings of character and strength. It had to be an innings that would turn a 150-run fourth innings chase to one above 200. And it came from the blade of South Africa’s most gifted batsman ever, AB de Villiers.
Jacques Kallis had the ability to grind it out in the middle, even when the chips were down. Graeme Smith had the tenacity of a fighter. Hashim Amla has the fluidity of a river in its downstream when at his best. Ab de Villiers has chutzpah, perhaps the only modern day batsman whose style comes close to the calculated menace, that Sir Viv Richards’ batting had.
COUNTER-ATTACK AT ITS BEST
Bhuvneshwar Kumar was making the ball talk on the first morning. He was moving the cherry both ways off the seam and his three-wicket burst at the top of the order surely would have made Faf du Plessis nervous about his decision to bat first. The fact that it turned out to be a wise call, was because his childhood friend was not ready to be bossed around. Faf himself vindicated his decision by ending the first innings as his team’s second highest scorer, but it was de Villiers’ knock of 65 that changed the script.
When de Villiers came in to bat, South Africa were struggling to put up a fight on home turf. The score read 2 for 7 and it soon became 3 for 12. Bhuvneshwar was immaculate with his line and length and there was a lot of cocky chatter from Kohli and his men. The former South African captain quietly played out one over from Bhuvneshwar, his fourth, after which his figures read 3/7. After the end of his next over, his fifth, his figures were 3/24. de Villiers hit Bhuvneshwar Kumar for four boundaries in an over and that’s where the story of South Africa’s first innings changed. The first two were powerful cover drives which forced the medium pacer to shorten his length and the moment that happened, de Villiers nailed him. He had quietly forced India’s best bowler to bowl a length that he wasn’t comfortable bowling. This is what great batsmen do. They force bowlers to bowl deliveries they could score off.
He was lucky, when he got an inside edge off Shami which ran down to the fine leg fence, but that’s part of the bargain on a pitch like this. Had it not been for Bumrah’s in dipper, India were in for a rough one.
CONTROLLING THE DAMAGE
AB de Villiers’ attacking prowess was on display on the fourth morning as well. Shami and Bumrah had dented South Africa’s second essay badly and India were looking to bowl the Proteas out for under 100 so that they would have to chase a sub-200 target. But de Villiers wasn’t ready to make it that easy for, his ‘bosom-RCB-pal’, Kohli and his men. He counter-attacked again, stroking his way to 35 with the help of two boundaries and two sixes, before eventually holing out in the deep.
This was a man who had not played a Test match, not counting the four-day match against Zimbabwe, for close to a year as he first looked to mentally prepare for the Champions Trophy and then tried hard to overcome yet another debacle in an ICC tournament. I was there at the press conference at The Oval, after India had thrashed South Africa and booted them out of the Champions Trophy. The South African journalists wanted their pound of ABD’s flesh as the ‘c’ word was being spoken in hushed voices. He was a man in pain, he was stammering, he was visibly emotionally drained, but he was stoic. He wanted to continue leading the South African team because he thought he was a ‘good captain’ capable of taking South Africa to a ‘World Cup win’.
Since that day, de Villiers has played in 5 T20 internationals and just 3 one-day internationals, before making a return to the Test arena in a high profile series like this one against India. While covering sports and writing about it, we often tend to forget the emotional aspect of a sportsperson’s life off the field. How bad a loss might hurt someone, how unsettling could the post match questions be. It takes a lot to represent one’s country at the highest level. It takes a lot to remove those mental cobwebs and come out and perform at the highest level, where your every action is under microscopic scrutiny. It takes a lot to be AB de Villiers.