AB’s ab­sence is, strangely, in­stru­men­tal in Proteas’ hero­ics

CityPress - - Sport - Simnikiwe Xabanisa sports@city­press.co.za Fol­low me on Twit­ter @Simx­a­ban­isa

The New Zealand com­men­ta­tor bat­tled to find words del­i­cate enough to say it last week, so he ended up with some­thing along the lines of, this South African cricket team was not the most heavy­weight to visit his coun­try.

In all earnest­ness, he had a point. The last Proteas side to tour there, in 2012, in­cluded Graeme Smith, Jac­ques Kal­lis, Hashim Amla, AB de Vil­liers, Mark Boucher, Dale Steyn and Ver­non Phi­lan­der, men who, at the very least, will go down as greats in this coun­try’s his­tory.

Yet the cur­rent team stands on the thresh­old of at least match­ing their pre­de­ces­sors’ feat of that trip by win­ning se­ries across all for­mats if they win or draw the third and fi­nal test, which be­gan in the early hours of yes­ter­day morn­ing.

This is with a cap­tain who’s hardly the South African stereo­type (Faf du Plessis), a heavy run-scorer cur­rently deal­ing in sin­gles (Amla), an ad­dled thor­ough­bred bats­man ( JP Du­miny), more than its fair share of bat­tlers (Steven Cook, Dean El­gar and Temba Bavuma), a lef­t­arm spin­ner keep­ing out a gifted left-arm chi­na­man (Ke­shav Ma­haraj) and a pace bowler with a dodgy back (Morné Morkel).

And when the Kiwi com­men­ta­tor added all of the above with AB de Vil­liers’ in­def­i­nite ab­sence, he felt he had a rea­son for his play­ing com­pa­tri­ots to af­ford the vis­i­tors a lit­tle less re­spect in a se­ries in which the South Africans have won ev­ery­thing worth win­ning.

But the main rea­son Rus­sell Domingo’s men have be­come so tough to beat is pre­cisely be­cause the likes of De Vil­liers and the in­jured Steyn are miss­ing.

Be­fore this comes across as a ques­tion mark against the sheer out­rage of De Vil­liers’ gifts, I prob­a­bly need to ex­plain.

I’ve only been watch­ing cricket since the early 1990s, so I haven’t seen ev­ery­thing there is to see when it comes to South African cricket. But for me, De Vil­liers’ com­bi­na­tion of tech­nique and flair; shot-mak­ing and power; and a snake charmer’s abil­ity to make a bowler bowl where he wants him to makes him the best South African bats­man I’ve so far seen.

Tak­ing to the field with­out De Vil­liers is akin to do­ing so with­out Vi­rat Kohli, Steve Smith, Joe Root and Kane Wil­liamson if you are In­dia, Aus­tralia, Eng­land and New Zealand, re­spec­tively. Yet, psy­cho­log­i­cally, it is prob­a­bly the big­gest rea­son the Proteas have done well of late.

The most ob­vi­ous ev­i­dence is how De Vil­liers’ ab­sence coaxed per­for­mances out of Cook, El­gar and Du­miny when he was still ex­pected to walk back into the team. The other is slightly dif­fer­ent.

South African sport is hi­er­ar­chi­cal in strange ways – it’s not just about where se­niors and ju­niors fit in, it can also be about what play­ers ex­pect of them­selves and their team-mates.

Sim­ply put, less ta­lented play­ers have been known to out­source their own ex­pec­ta­tions of who’ll save the team’s ba­con to the go-to guys.

But with Amla strug­gling to reac­quaint him­self with his off­s­tump and you-know-who not there, each Proteas player has had to find the hero within. The big­gest sign things are chang­ing is how Du Plessis re­cently talked about be­ing in the process of trans­form­ing his bat­ting from good to great.

He used to thrive on long in­nings to draw tests. As good as they are for the soul, marathon bat­ting ses­sions to save tests in which you need to score 500 to win are eas­ier to do be­cause no­body ac­tu­ally ex­pects you will.

Du Plessis sounds like he now wants to put up the num­bers with the bur­den of ex­pec­ta­tion, which is what Bavuma and Quin­ton de Kock have been do­ing. Think of ev­ery test in which South Africa have been in trou­ble in the past few se­ries – the pair’s de­cent knocks have saved the day.

It’s an at­ti­tude that seems to per­me­ate the team: El­gar’s re­cent per­for­mances sug­gest he’s ask­ing tough ques­tions of his abil­ity; Ma­haraj’s seiz­ing the mo­ment to bowl the side to vic­tory says he’s not con­tent with hold­ing up an end; and Morkel’s bowl­ing af­ter his back in­jury screams de­sire.

The main rea­son for all of this in­tro­spec­tion by the Proteas is that they all know if they don’t do it them­selves, there’s no su­per­hero named af­ter two US pres­i­dents (AB stands for Abra­ham Ben­jamin) to save them.

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