De Villiers commits to Test cricket after chastising loss
AB de Villiers has dropped a hint that he might be willing after all to lead South Africa's Test team in the longer term, after stating that it was pressure, not personnel, that led to the side's downfall on a catastrophic third day at Johannesburg.
De Villiers, who had been rumoured to be on the verge of retirement from Test cricket amid concerns about his workload, quashed any such rumours in the wake of South Africa's seven-wicket defeat at The Wanderers.
Faced with an inspired spell of bowling from Stuart Broad, who claimed 5 for 1 in ten overs after lunch, South Africa crumbled to 83 all out in their second innings. The result confirmed the end of South Africa's reign as the No.1 Test team, and may just have galvanised South Africa's new Test captain to stick to his guns and lead a side in transition out of their current malaise.
"I was never thinking of leaving Test cricket at all. I was just to find a way to rest a little bit throughout the year," de Villiers said after the match. "Lots of thoughts have been crossing my mind but this [defeat] has got absolutely no influence on that."
"Playing on the cricket pitch has never been an issue for me, it's just a matter of keeping myself fresh. It's really tough to stay on top of your game if you play up to 12 months a year. I just have to try and find a balance to keep my fight going and keep that skill level up."
South Africa's skills may have been lacking in the decisive third Test, and the absence of several key members of their team - Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander, JP Duminy and Quinton de Kock, not to mention a specialist opening batsman - cannot have helped. However, de Villiers believes the team still has plenty raw materials with which to rebuild their fortunes.
"The players we have are not really the issue, there's still something to work with there," he said. "The talent is there, it's just a matter of finding consistency and applying pressure more often
"They [England] kept applying the pressure. Every time we looked like starting a good partnership, they took a good catch or bowled a good delivery, and it just kept going like that. I guess when momentum is on your side, things tend to happen that way. Credit to them for creating that kind of pressure."
Facing up to the loss of the series, and their No.1 Test ranking, de Villiers conceded, somewhat dramatically, "I almost feel like all hope is gone". However, throwing ahead to the final dead-rubber Test in Centurion, he struck a more upbeat note.
"I'm still the kind of guy that will get myself going for that last Test match, and get the team going," he said. "I felt we were in the game lots of times throughout the Test match and just didn't grab those opportunities."
South Africa's chances came in the first innings when they were 117 for 1 against an England attack struggling with a stomach bug and with a big total on the cards. Instead, they squandered that chance and threw their wickets away, with every batsman reaching double figures but none going past Dean Elgar's 46, to put themselves under unnecessary pressure.
"There were quite a few opportunities that we had throughout the match and one was in the first innings," de Villiers said. "We were getting a lot of partnerships going, a lot of guys got in. There was a great opportunity to get 400-plus and we didn't take that. 400-plus on this wicket is very tough to play against. Unfortunately we missed that trick."
Then, South Africa had England 91 for 4 in reply and "let it slip." De Villiers struggled to use his four quicks effectively, primarily because they all did the same job. Among them, there was no designated holding bowler and, without a spinner, there was no way to slow the game down. However, de Villiers did not blame team selection or player unavailability for the leaked runs.
"We miss Dale, there's no excuse with that. We miss Vern, we miss Kallis as well. But this is the team we have and the team I believe in," he said. "It's up to the 11 here and the 11 that get picked at Centurion to do something special. That's the way past players like a Kallis and a Smith did it. They had some tough times and they found a way to get through it to get to the top of the rankings. We've now got to find a way with what we have to become the best."
De Villiers does not know how to find that way at the moment, but he knows the fundamental reason why. "We're not the same side anymore," he said. "There are lots of different players. We're still up there in the rankings, but that means absolutely nothing. I believe our form of late has been really poor and it will take something really special to turn it around. It's important for us to try and find that mould of cricket we're looking to play. We're a little bit offbeat at the moment, that's for sure."
"The youngsters will learn a lot. Not long ago I was that youngster in the team, going through ups and downs at Test level, personally and as a team a while back. You learn a lot from that. It's important just to survive and for a youngster to get through this and not to give up and gain a lot of experience. If guys like Kagiso [Rabada] and Hardus [Viljoen] and a few others get through this patch, they'll become much better cricketers."
De Villiers hopes to be the man to guide them through that, even if his captaincy stint is clipped at the end of these two Tests.
"It's a big responsibility for me, and a great opportunity to have an influence on younger players. I would love to walk away from the game knowing I've had an influence on the young guys turning into senior players in the team," de Villiers said. "There's a group of about four or five players that have the responsibility on their shoulders, and it's important for us to keep things intact. And to keep the hope going. I'd love to be captain, I'm hopefully still captain in the next game, we'll see."
In this match, de Villiers could not inspire his players, even though he said he gave it his all. "The message in the change-room was to keep fighting, there's no doubt in my mind all 11 kept fighting but we just got a good hammering from the opposition," he said. "I tried everything I could personally, I believe my fellow team-mates also did. It's difficult to explain how these kind of things happen, we have to give credit to the England bowlers and the team."
That was where de Villiers had to concede South Africa were simply outgunned by a man with a trained eye. Broad dealt them a blow they will take a long time to recover from and for which, at the moment, they have no explanation for.
"That's some of the best bowling I've faced from their whole unit. Conditions suited them really well and they made full use of that," he said. "They asked a lot of questions, right throughout our innings. They didn't ask as many questions in the first innings and that's where I thought we missed a trick.
"This time around they were spot on, they were a little bit fuller in their lengths and they asked questions all the time. The ball was moving around a lot, but they showed some good skill and you have to give them credit for that, especially Broady for getting the results."
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent