de Villiers hopes South Africa find killer instinct
The stereotype that follows sub-continental teams is that they cannot win away from home and South Africa are fast-building an opposite, but fairly accurate pigeon-hole of their own - they cannot win at home.
The last time they won a home Test series was in 2008, against Bangladesh. Of greater significance, is that the last time South Africa won a Test series at home against a team ranked in the top five, was in 2007 against Pakistan, who were then at No. 3.
The opportunity to break the trend presents itself with the upcoming three-Test series against Sri Lanka, who live up to the miserable typecast and have never won a single Test, nevermind a series, in South Africa. The hosts are looking at the tour as a way to rediscover the ability to close out matches consistently and build towards a Test series win for the first time in 18 months.
Despite being ranked as the second best-side in Test cricket until three weeks ago, South Africa last claimed a Test series win in June 2010, against West Indies. Since then, they have drawn series against Pakistan, India and, most-recently, Australia - a result which saw South Africa drop to third. For the most part, they have played captivating five-day cricket but have unable to secure results and AB de Villiers said that they have figured out why.
"I don't think we've played poor cricket in the last few years but we haven't played the massive and important situations too well," de Villiers said at SuperSport Park. "Like in that last Test match against Australia, we were presented with the opportunity to finish it off and we didn't do that."
After winning an extraordinary first Test at Newlands, South Africa set Australia a tough target of 310 in the second Test in Johannesburg. It required a record fourth-innings chase and Australia stuttered along the way but won by two wickets, a margin small enough for South Africa to feel thoroughly disappointed.
Last season, South Africa were locked one-all with India and drew the third Test to leave the series at a stalemate. The season before that, South Africa drew with England. Each side won one of the four matches in the series but the two drawn matches, in Centurion and Cape Town, could easily have gone South Africa's way. They had England nine down in their second innings on both occasions but could not take the final wicket.
de Villiers acknowledged the limp last punch is becoming a concern. "That's what makes a good team, a great one and we are not doing that at the moment," he said. "That's why England are doing really well at the moment; when they get a sniff they finish it off. We haven't been able to do that for long periods of time."
South Africa will approach the series with the mindset of being in it for the long haul and want to stack up session victories to translate into a match win. The fluctuating shifts in advantage that have become a feature of their Test cricket will even out into a steady flow, in which they dominate passages of play.
"Test cricket is all about momentum," de Villiers said. "When you are going well and you get the opposition on the ropes, it's a matter of finishing it off and being more aggressive. But, when you are down and out, you have to minimise your weakness. It's just a case of knowing when to play, absorb the pressure and when to give it back on the opposition."
Against a Sri Lanka side that is reeling from injury concerns and going through a slump in form, de Villiers believes South Africa will emerge convincing victors if they are able to produce steadier performances. "If we play consistent cricket over a few days, we should get ourselves in a good position to win a Test. And we don't only want to do it for one Test, but for the whole series," he said.
Their home ground advantage is also set to serve South Africa well, although de Villiers said he would prefer fair pitches to green mambas as the series unfolds. "I just want a good cricket wicket. If we get a good cricket wicket and we play good cricket, they won't be able to stop us."
Just before getting too far ahead of himself, de Villiers took a step back and admitted that South Africa have some work to do before they can announce themselves with authority to Sri Lanka. They have not toured the country in nine years and the two teams last played against each other in 2006. de Villiers said the team will spend a significant amount of time over the next two days studying video footage of the Sri Lankans, some of whom they have never seen before.
"I watched them on the telly the other day and I hardly recognised half the team," de Villiers admitted. "But, the most important thing for us is to respect them and play them like they are the number one team in the world at the moment."
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent