Sublime de Villiers repays Arthur's faith
There's nothing wrong with a bit of healthy rivalry if it means the bar gets set higher and higher. South Africa had two men who wanted to bat at No. 5 in this Test: Ashwell Prince and AB de Villiers. de Villiers was given the nod, Prince was reluctantly forced into the unfamiliar role of opening. If it was a cunning plan by the South African selectors to spark something special from their batsmen, it worked.
Big hundreds to both players ensured a permanent smile on the face of the convenor of selectors Mike Procter as he sat in the stands at Newlands over the past couple of days. It also meant he breathed a sigh of relief after Prince and de Villiers were involved in some heated exchanges as their domestic teams clashed on the weekend, after the batting order for this Test had been named.
It raised questions over whether the Newlands dressing room would be a happy place during this match. Despite the lingering frustration from Prince, who said after making 150 that he would have preferred to bat in his usual No. 5 spot, the team environment could be nothing but joyous after they made 651.
de Villiers' contribution of 163 continued his brilliant series, which had been the intention when the coach Mickey Arthur declined to push him up to open. He often went in first during the early part of his career but he has averaged 36.14 as a Test opener, compared to 49.84 when he hasn't opened.
"Not at all, no," de Villiers said when asked if the team had offered him the opening role again for this match. "Mickey said that I'm going to stick in the middle order, that's where I've been scoring my runs and I deserve to stay in the same spot, I don't have to change.
"Unfortunately for Ashwell he had to, the only spot left was the opening spot, but it paid off for him. I'm very, very happy for him. But that's how the team works. When you go out, you come [back] in wherever is best for the team. The team comes first."
It was probably for the best that neither Prince nor de Villiers significantly outperformed the other. Not that de Villiers really had anything to prove. He has been one of South Africa's strongest performers during the six Tests against Australia and he has scored 600 runs at 75.00 during the home and away series. He saved his best, and most entertaining, for what will almost certainly be his last innings of the contests.
For a brief moment it looked like de Villiers might achieve something that has eluded batsmen in Test cricket for 132 years. When de Villiers slammed the first four balls of an Andrew McDonald over for six, there was every possibility he might become the first man in Test history to hit six sixes in an over. By the middle of the over, the goal was on his mind.
"When I hit three [consecutive sixes], Albie [Morkel] came halfway down and said 'listen, you've got to make a decision here, if you're going to go for six in a row'. So I said 'geez, we're playing Test cricket here Albs'. But then the fourth one went over and [I thought] let's give it a go, why not. He bowled a good yorker for the fifth one so it obviously wasn't meant to be."
Prior to de Villiers, only Kapil Dev and Shahid Afridi had struck four consecutive sixes in a Test innings. The seven sixes that de Villiers finished with was a South African Test record and the aggressive streak has always been a feature of de Villiers' game.
But after play, he insisted his batting style had become less flashy over the past two years. It is true that de Villiers now has the ability to grind out an innings. It's a byproduct of maturity; de Villiers is still only 25 but is playing his 52nd Test - the same number that Don Bradman played in his 20-year career.
In the early days, he was asked to open and sometimes to keep wickets but he has benefited from a clearly defined role in the past couple of seasons. de Villiers doesn't want his job to change - other than an eventual promotion to No. 4 - but he concedes that when Mark Boucher eventually hangs up his gloves there may be pressure for him to take over behind the stumps.
"Ideally I'd like to bat at four and not keep," he said. "But if the team wants me to take the gloves in a few years' time ... we'll have a nice chat when that happens. I can't be the wicketkeeper if I really want to be a top world-class player, but we'll see what happens in two or three years' time."
For now, he's happy to be the No. 5. As the coach said, de Villiers doesn't have to change.
Brydon Coverdale is a staff writer at Cricinfo