As coach Gary Kirsten pointed out, the South African cricket team asks a lot of AB de Villiers: captain, wicketkeeper and number four batsman. But as De Villiers steered South Africa to a series win over Pakistan at Willowmoore Park in Benoni with a tremendous 95 not out off 111 balls on a difficult pitch with variable bounce, much of it steep and disconcerting, it became increasingly clear that he is comfortable with all the responsibility.
De Villiers’ knock on Sunday was his third half-century of the five-match series, to go with his superb century last weekend at the Wanderers, taking his tally for the series to a staggering 367 runs. It made him the obvious choice as man of the series and, having won the same accolade after the Tests, it’s fair to say De Villiers has never batted better, despite the increased burdens.
“I’m enjoying my batting. I’m just trying to keep it simple; I have a straightforward game plan – good intensity and good energy at the crease – and I’m just focusing on keeping still and really watching the ball,” De Villiers said with typical modesty.
While it’s easy to mock South Africa’s past record at ICC events, there is no doubt they will once again be amongst the favourites at the Champions Trophy in England in June.
They will clearly rely hugely, once again, on De Villiers as their greatest ODI match-winner, but they should also be a stronger outfit than the team that was not entirely convincing in edging Pakistan 3-2 on home soil. Graeme Smith, Jacques Kallis, Faf du Plessis, JP Duminy, Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel will all play key, bigger roles than they did against Pakistan.
Kirsten confirmed that he had been leaning on Kallis to make himself available and he is confident the great all-rounder will be having another go at getting his large hands on an ICC trophy.
“Jacques is not going to play ODI cricket for us anymore, but we reserve the right to use him as a wildcard in big tournaments, and the Champions Trophy is the last ICC event before the next World Cup. So I sidled up to Jacques at a good moment and asked him if he’d be interested in playing, and he said he probably was,” Kirsten said.
Kallis is bound to slot straight back into the number three spot in England and will also give the team the sixth bowler, which is imperative at ODI level.
With South Africa’s premier all-rounder returning to action, where does that leave Ryan McLaren?
McLaren will have some wonderful yarns to tell his grandchildren after a renaissance summer for the 30-year-old in which he shone in successive series wins over New Zealand and Pakistan. He took 10 cheap wickets at an economy rate of 4.45 against the sub-continental side, while he played a couple of crucial innings against the Black Caps and took eight wickets in three matches.
“It’s important for us to look for a new guy to step into Jacques’ place and Ryan has now had a bit of a run. He has shown he has the skills to do the job with the ball and I’m confident he can do a job with the bat too. He’s now displaying his skills in a relaxed manner and has had two fantastic series,” Kirsten said.
The coach stressed that the air’s notoriously thinner at international level, so one of the major positives from the summer was the way “fringe” players like McLaren, Farhaan Behardien, David Miller, Colin Ingram and Rory Kleinveldt stepped up and performed.
“There’s a lot less pressure at domestic level but everyone expects players to make a play straight away at international level. If they haven’t produced the goods after two games then they say they’re not good enough.
“But I’m very pleased that guys like Behardien, Miller, McLaren, Ingram and Kleinveldt have all had an impact and have shown they’re capable of playing at international level. We’ve created some depth and it’s important for us to find other players. I’m excited by the development of those fringe players,” Kirsten said.
As much as traditionalists (myself included) dislike the idea of De Villiers being captain, wicketkeeper and the key batsman, there is no doubt it seems to have brought out the best of one of the most extraordinarily talented cricketers in the world.
“AB has made great strides as captain and this has been a very significant series for him. His batting has been outstanding and his wicketkeeping continues to develop. Plus he had a couple of great games as captain, he’s done a fantastic job as skipper. It obviously takes time to develop as an international captain,” Kirsten said.
There have been some suggestions that there has been a lack of focus on limited-overs cricket from the current Proteas management, but Kirsten assured that the eyes of the coaching staff are firmly on the Champions Trophy. Winning that would obviously help lift the monkey on their back when it comes to World Cups.
“We’re trying to bring in a similar culture to the Test team, but there’s a different focus and we don’t even talk about the Tests. We’ve made good strides against a great team in this series and it’s been a good stepping-stone to where we want to go.
“Now it will be a good time to reflect and work out how we can win the Champions Trophy and I’m very excited about the team we can put together,” Kirsten said.
Kirsten confirmed that the addition of another world-class spinner in Johan Botha was not on the cards, but South Africa’s pace bowlers will obviously enjoy performing in the seam and swing of English conditions.
But that is also when the leadership and mettle of De Villiers will have its first major test. But, as he showed again in conquering the fearsome Pakistan attack on a tricky Willowmoore Park pitch, De Villiers is not one to shy away from a challenge.