De Villiers talks up England weaknesses
Even though England have already won the series against South Africa, AB de Villiers has declared them "not unbeatable" in a feisty press conference ahead of the final Test.
De Villiers referred to cracks in England's batting, with three of the top five potentially playing for their places in Centurion. He also suggested that some of their bowlers "have lost pace" - a comment widely interpreted as an attack on James Anderson, England's attack leader who has so far only managed to take three wickets in two Tests.
"There's no hiding from the fact that they seem to know what they are doing. But there's also no doubt that there are weaknesses there, and we've exposed some of them - but not enough and not for long enough," de Villiers said. "Their batting is not 100% best-in-the-world material. The bowling line-up is very experienced but some have lost pace over the years but they're very smart and very skilled. They're not unbeatable."
With words like that, Alastair Cook warned that de Villiers may be asking for trouble from the England attack. "He's obviously trying to wind everything up and if Jimmy reads it he'll have a word," Cook said. "I actually think his speeds have been quite good in this series. It's a brave man to call Jimmy Anderson out but I guess it will spice up the match a little."
That does not bode well for South Africa's batsmen, who have had a torrid time of it in the last two months. They have managed only two scores over 300 and slumped to their two lowest totals since readmission - something de Villiers is not running away from. He admitted their performances were not good enough - "it's time for us to wake up a little bit now and start playing proper cricket" - but did not say whether much had changed behind the scenes to enable that to happen just yet.
For now, he offered fighting talk: "There are no dead rubbers in Test cricket. The game has got way too much tradition and culture and history for us just to rock up and think it doesn't mean anything. It's a huge game for us. We'd hate to lose 3-0. I think 2-1 sounds a lot better. It would be great to win a Test. We haven't won a Test for 12 months."
But in the near future, he hopes there will be more technical improvements, including the involvement of a batting coach. "We've been a bit naive in believing we can go on the way we have been," de Villiers said. "We need to get advice and help, not only from a batting coach - in a few other areas as well. That will be discussed after this series. There are a few names already in the hat."
One of those names might be former captain Graeme Smith, who was roped in to assist before the Newlands Test but could not commit more time than that because of his commentary commitments. Instead, Smith has been vocal in his criticism of the current set-up and he is not the only one. Other players including Barry Richards and Daryl Cullinan have also aired their views but the most noteworthy naysaying came from within.
Ashwell Prince, who is on the selection panel, questioned the wisdom of de Villiers' comment that "all hope is gone" after the Wanderers defeat, and said the captain needed to send out more positive messages to the youngsters. It seems de Villiers has heard that, even though it may have hurt him.
"It's funny, because when I used to play with these guys they would talk about past players criticising them, and [saying] they can't believe it and they'll never become like that. So it's pretty funny and it shows you how quickly things change," de Villiers said. "But I've got no one to blame. We haven't won for a while and we deserve a bit of criticism. It's disappointing, but there are no hard feelings. We've got to move on as a team and try and win games."
And de Villiers remained confident that they will start doing that again, even if it takes some time before they really turn things around. "Before our run of four or five very good years, just before that there was also a patch when Graeme was captaining when people were talking in exactly the same way about us. I'm hoping we can make that turn quicker than people are expecting us to do. I'm optimistic. I've seen a lot of talent come through. We just need to get some experience and to get a few smart heads involved, and I believe we will move forward as a cricket team."
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent