AB de Villiers is widely seen as the most gifted striker of a cricket ball in the world.The South African’s talents were recognised again today as he was named the ICC’s ODI Player of the Year for the second season in a row after his brilliant quickfire batting lit up the World Cup.
However, over the next month it is De Villiers’s magnificence in the Test arena that will be of concern to England as they prepare to face his side in a four-match series.
South Africa are No1 in the Test rankings and England are fifth but the hosts have just suffered a 3-0 defeat in India, their heaviest in nine years.
Allan Donald, a great of Proteas and world cricket, admits he is “nervous” ahead of the series which starts on Boxing Day in Durban.
However, when I ask De Villiers how the four Tests will pan out he says without hesitation: “I see us winning 2-1.”
I am talking to the man just as he is about to board a flight to Durban and
with the calmness that has always marked his play he admits: “Obviously your confidence is reliant on your results and when you have a bad series then it definitely affects your confidence as a team but we are still No1 in the world so we have got reason to still be confident.”
Part of the belief is down to the return of the world’s No1 Test bowler, Dale Steyn. His recovery after missing three of the four Tests in India due to a groin injury is timely as Vernon Philander will be absent for at least the first two Tests due to an ankle problem.
“Dale is ready to go,” says De Villiers. “He’s very eager to get on to the park, he’s missed out on quite a few games now and he’ll be very hungry to perform for the team. We will be missing out big time with one of our best bowlers [Philander] but with Dale and Morne Morkel and a few other young players that have come through, we will have a very handy seam attack.”
De Villiers reveals his side have already worked out where the tourists will be most vulnerable.
“I definitely feel England’s weakness is in the batting line-up and not only weaknesses but areas we can expose,” says the 31-year-old. “So it will be up to Dale and Morne to hopefully find these areas quickly and expose them.”
One obvious area to target is England’s opening pair where Alastair Cook will have in Alex Hales his eighth new batting partner since Andrew Strauss retired in 2012. De Villiers says: “There are quite a few new players. It can be a strength but more often than not in Test cricket if you start with new players and you change it can be a potential weakness. So we’ll have time to expose those areas. But they have some world-class players in Alastair Cook, Joe Root and a few others so we’ll be wary of those players but feel we can expose them.”
It is his comments on Root that reveal how much he feels experience matters in Test cricket. The 24-year-old is No2 in the Test batting rankings — one place above De Villiers — but has never played first-class cricket in South Africa.
The Pretoria-born batsman says: “On recent form and success, yes, he has earned his right to be seen as one of the better players but I’m always the kind of guy that values experience. I will always be wary of a guy like Alastair Cook. He can bat for long periods of time, he’s done that so many times before. Joe Root has still got a few areas where we can expose him. He’s still a very young guy so, hopefully, we can find a weakness or two in this series.”
“We have got to be really well prepared for Broady and Jimmy.”
Moeen Ali is also in the South African thinking with De Villiers saying: “It depends really when he is going to bat, whether we are going to get him with a new ball or a little bit later. We know he plays a lot of shots which always gives you opportunities to get him out, but he’s a dangerous player and he’s always done really well for England.”
Despite all his optimism, De Villiers accepts that South Africa also may have batting problems, particularly when it comes to openers.
“It is similar to England, a possible area of weakness,” he says. “There is a little bit of lack of experience there. Dean Elgar’s played there. He is one of our reliable opening batters but obviously we have a couple of others [Stiaan van Zyl and Temba Bavuma] who haven’t played for that long and are hoping to find their feet first. But it can also be a strength and it’s up to the senior players in our team like myself to make those players feel comfortable.”
In India, De Villiers and, in particular, captain Hashim Amla, failed to live up to expectations although the former believes circumstances were against them. “We’ve asked for good cricket wickets. In India we didn’t really see a fair contest between bat and ball. We are all just raring to see a good wicket where it goes for five days. We have a few capable batters in the line-up that can score big runs.”
That will mean coping with pacemen Stuart Broad and Jimmy Anderson, who is a doubt for the First Test due to a calf injury. “It’s hard to pick one over the other,” says De Villiers. “They are completely different bowlers. Broady gets a lot of bounce, he moves the ball more off the deck. Jimmy obviously gets his wickets with a lot of swing. Two very skilful bowlers, certainly the two best bowlers in the English side, so we have got to be really well prepared for them.”
The series will see De Villiers keep wicket for the first time in a Test in almost a year after Quinton de Kock and Dane Vilas, who both had time behind the stumps in India, were dropped for poor batting form.
The extra work does not faze De Villiers, who said: “Before I took the gloves for the first time everyone was talking about how it might affect my batting and now everyone is talking about it being good for my batting. I can honestly tell you it does absolutely nothing to my fitness or my physical ability when I do keep. I enjoy being involved in the game for prolonged periods. So, yes, keeping wickets is a good thing.”
Playing against England has always been special for De Villiers and he cherishes his 174 at Headingley in 2008 in a match in which he was at the centre of controversy after claiming a catch that he had grounded. As a result, De Villiers was booed by the home fans when he walked out for his innings but responded in the perfect fashion.
“It was one of the best [innings] in my career, one of the most memorable, especially with the controversial catch. The crowd got on my back so it was important for my career to get through. I’ll always be very proud of that knock.”