South Africa in Australia 2012-13 November 18, 2012

'Our bowlers can get better' - de Villiers

South Africa's bowlers will have to make strident improvements ahead of the second Test against Australia in Adelaide, according to vice-captain AB de Villiers. The visiting attack, talked about as the best in the world, managed just four wickets to Australia's 14 on an unresponsive pitch in Brisbane and will be under close scrutiny in the second fixture.

"The bowlers can get better and they know they can," de Villiers said. "We had chances [at the Gabba] and we just didn't take them. There were a lot of edges and 50-50 chances didn't go our way."

He also admitted what the bowling coach Allan Donald had suggested during the match - that the usually clinical South African attack became complacent after they made early inroads. "When we had them 40 for 3 I thought there was an opportunity to run through them," de Villiers said. "It is a bit of a worry, but you're not always going to bowl out a team for 150 and 200. Sometimes you have to work hard for that."

While such a statement is hardly revolutionary, South Africa have become used to slicing through their opposition. Since playing Australia in November 2011, they have beaten Sri Lanka at home and New Zealand and England away. The current Australian batting line-up is arguably the best South Africa have faced over the last year.

Against more stubborn batsmen though, a different approach is needed. In his column for ESPNcricinfo, Ian Chappell accused South Africa's bowlers of lacking imagination and waiting for Australia to make mistakes. He argued it was a tactic that was unlikely to work against good sides, like the one led by Michael Clarke.

Ed Cowan and Clarke put on a fourth-wicket stand of 259 runs before Michael Hussey and Clarke combined for 228 runs to give the attack their worst day at the office since Colombo 2006. Then, Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene were in the midst of compiling their 624-run record partnership.

It did not get that bad in Brisbane but South Africa conceded more than four runs to the over and spent the entire fourth day without any of the bowlers taking a wicket. The only one to fall, Cowan, came through a run-out and de Villiers suggested a hard lesson had been learnt.

"They sent a message that we have to work really hard to take wickets," de Villiers said. "This attack of ours has performed on flat decks before. These are just two really world-class batting line-ups, and the bowlers are going to have to work really hard on what seem to be flat decks to take wickets."

The most recent example of that was at The Oval in July. South Africa took 20 wickets while England managed only two on a similarly batsmen-friendly surface. De Villiers believes that ability to repeat that remains and even peeped out at times in Brisbane.

"We beat the bat a hell of a lot on the evening of the third day and the morning of the fourth," he said. "It looks pretty but it's not effective. For a really good attack to beat the bat that much and not take wickets is disappointing. But what can you do - we're talking about millimetres."

Glaringly absent from the wickets column was Vernon Philander, whose run of 61 wickets in 11 Tests had to reach its end at some point. Philander is wicket-less in Australia so far. He did not claim any in the tour match at the SCG or in the first Test but de Villiers hoped he may just be waiting to pounce when it matters.

"He's not a concern," de Villiers said. "His record speaks for itself. The games he was won for us in the past have been the big games, and we're looking forward to the big game in Adelaide."

Philander is not solely to blame, though. The make-up of the attack also contributed to South Africa's downfall. They went into the match with an all-pace battery of four seamers and were hopeful that JP Duminy's part-time offspin would provide rest for the quicks.

When Duminy was injured after the first day's play, South Africa found themselves without a holding bowler. De Villiers, coach Gary Kirsten and assistant coach Russell Domingo all said they favoured the inclusion of a frontline spinner in a Test XI and de Villiers indicated the team will return to that strategy.

"I wouldn't say we made a mistake [in Brisbane] because I honestly don't think the spinners played a big part," he said. "I thought we made the right decision to play Rory [Kleinveldt]. It will be different here. We know it takes a bit of turn. It's more like the traditional Test wicket where it's a good wicket for a few days, then it starts turning a bit and then probably gets a bit up and down. I'm not going to pick the team now, but I'd say we will definitely go with a spinner."

That will mean changing the XI immediately, something South African sides of old were reluctant to do. They reached No.1 through consistent selection but may need to make adjustments to their XI as they look to stay there. De Villiers said they are willing to be critical of themselves, especially when they have underperformed.

"We weren't that happy with our performance which is always a good sign," he said. "We are the No.1 team in the world, and for the No.1 team to say they can improve is a really good thing."

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent