LAST BIG HURRAH?
Tristan Holme in Durban • Last updated on Wed, 28 Feb, 2018, 08:19 PM
Faf du Plessis and AB de Villiers have set sights on conquering a home series against Australia, something that hasn’t happened since 1992. © Getty
South Africa captain Faf du Plessis is expecting a big series from an “extremely motivated” AB de Villiers, even if he is loath to speculate on whether the four-Test contest against Australia will be the batsman’s last big hurrah.
South Africa’s quest to beat Australia in a home Test series for the first time since readmission begins at Kingsmead on Thursday (March 1) with the home side knowing that they will need their senior batsmen to stand up to a quality pace attack. Those senior batsmen, which include de Villiers and du Plessis as well as Hashim Amla, are all coming towards the end of careers that have experienced Test success around the world – but not at home against their fiercest rivals.
The prospect of beating Australia on home soil has always looked likely to feature on de Villiers’s hit list, even when he announced last year that he would take a sabbatical from the longest format. The batsman missed tours of New Zealand and England, and a home series against Bangladesh, in order to recharge his batteries, but returned in time for key assignments against India and Australia.
When he announced the sabbatical, de Villiers also hinted at a plan, saying: “I am hoping to make a comeback with the Titans towards the end of the year in preparation for the series against India and Australia. That’s the plan. I am not committing to it but I am hoping to make a comeback there in Test cricket. My dream plan is to come back for those eight Test matches and that’s all I can say for now. My focus is on the 2019 World Cup but if I feel physically incapable of making it after those two Test series, I will call it a day then. I’ll make that call once we get there. I can’t decide now how I am going to feel in 12 months.”
With no marquee series on South Africa’s Test calendar before next year’s World Cup, there is a sense that this could be the final one for de Villiers. Asked whether the senior players, including the retiring Morne Morkel, would be motivated by the fact that this could be their last big series, du Plessis said: “For me, I don’t look too far in the future. As I sit now, I still feel like I have got a lot left in the tank. That can change over a season or two. Right now, Test cricket over the next two years of playing for this team in all formats, we are very motivated to do that. AB is very motivated especially for this series. I am expecting big things from him as well.”
While Morkel has announced that this will be his final series in international cricket, de Villiers has not given any indication since returning to Test cricket of how much longer he intends to play the five-day game. But with the World Cup known to be his priority, Tests are likely to hold less importance after this series, although du Plessis joked that he was better off avoiding speculation.
“I tried to speak on behalf of him before (after the England series) and that also didn’t help,” he said. “So your guess is as good as mine. What I can tell you is that he is extremely motivated. AB understands that he is one of the best players in the world and if he has a quiet series, it makes him want to do more. He doesn’t want people talking about him not performing so I know the motivation will be high.”
Personally, du Plessis’ ability to absorb pressure with his own batting will make him a crucial player for South Africa in a series when they will face sustained pressure from Australia’s bowling attack, and he declared himself fit to play after a month on the sidelines. The captain fractured his right index finger in the first ODI against India in Durban and missed the remainder of the limited-overs segment of the tour.
Although he has been unable to play a professional game as part of his preparation for the Australia series, du Plessis is in familiar territory, having spent two and a half months on the sidelines between injuring his back in an ODI against Bangladesh and stepping out for the first Test against India in January. On that occasion he overcame a lack of preparation with three important innings that helped South Africa clinch the series, underscoring his ability to make a mental switch.
“Before the India series, I had two or three nets and then I played the first Test. If you look at preparing, I was probably underprepared but mentally I was in a good space and I felt good going in. The same thing now. I haven’t had a lot of time hitting balls in the middle but mentally I feel like I am there. Form for me is more mental. Every guy can say he is in and out of form, but it’s how strong you are mentally,” he said.
“I’m looking forward to seeing how our batsmen do in this series. I think wickets will be a little bit better. The Indian series was very bowling friendly conditions – probably the most we’ve played in in South Africa before. And the runs that were scored in that series was not a direct reflection of guys’ form. The scores were pretty low, there was only one hundred. It’s not a concern for me.”
Nevertheless South Africa will have to consider fielding a seventh specialist batsman. Du Plessis confirmed that it is one of the options being explored. Retaining four fast bowlers, or fielding Wiaan Mulder, the most genuine all-rounder in the squad, are the other possibilities. One factor that could sway the selectors in favour of Theunis de Bruyn is that he has been working on his seam bowling with coach Ottis Gibson.
“When you play seven batsmen, you’ve got three seamers and a spinner which leaves you a touch on the thin side with the bowling,” said du Plessis. “The fact that Theunis has that (bowling) as a back-up pushes him in the right direction. For us, you also look at the opposition you play. Against India, we felt it was important to try and make sure we could use our pace to put them under pressure. That’s why someone like Keshav (Maharaj) didn’t play as big a role as he thought he would, because the conditions didn’t suit that. This series if we feel that an extra batter will be something we will credit for, that’s very much part of our thinking.”
One area in which du Plessis has backed off is with his instructions to groundsmen. For the India series a special emphasis was put on preparing quick wickets, yet South Africa only got what they wanted in one of the three Tests. “I think I learned my lesson from that,” said du Plessis. “This series, Australia and South Africa are two very similar teams. Conditions wise they play on very similar conditions. When we are playing against a subcontinent team, we try to get an advantage somehow. We both will play on what we get. We have asked for nothing specific.”
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