How good is AB de Villiers?
Good enough to have Australia's captain Steven Smith instruct Mitchell Starc, arguably the world's fastest bowler, to fire balls deliberately down the leg side in an effort to keep the South African maestro off strike for the next over. As the tourists ponder how better to find a way past de Villiers in the pivotal Cape Town Test match next week, Starc has not only revealed being ordered to take this highly negative approach to de Villiers during his Port Elizabeth masterclass, but also that he was far from happy to do so.
"I can't say I was too happy with that either," Starc said when asked how often he had been reduced to such tactics in his professional career. "Look, if the captain tells me to do something I'm going to do it, aren't I?"
Whatever his personal views, Starc's last two balls of the 117th over in South Africa's first innings, and Josh Hazlewood's fifth in the 118th, were all bowled well wide of leg stump with the aim of de Villiers not being able to reach them. They were tantamount to a white flag of surrender after de Villiers had overcome all the Australians could hurl or twirl at him, and left Starc and the rest to spend much of their time off between St George's Park and Newlands in conversation about how to stop him.
By Starc's assessment, the single most challenging thing about de Villiers the batsman is his ability to play several different shots to the same ball, thus reducing a bowler's margin for error and also diverting his mind from the sorts of simple plans that work against most if diligently followed. "He seems to be able to play a couple of different shots to the same length ball, so your margin for error is a lot less to someone like him," Starc said. "But he's only human, so he's going to make mistakes and you're going to be able to get him out and people have before in the past and I'm pretty confident in our bowling attack. So there's no doubt we can get him out four more times in the series.
"I think you've got to think outside the box a lot more with him. A good ball's still a good ball to any batter in world cricket, it's just bowling them more consistently, changing the field a little bit and maybe cutting off a couple of scoring areas for him as well. I think that's one thing we didn't do well enough to him in the first innings [in Port Elizabeth], we didn't bowl enough good balls to him.
"We've had some lengthy discussions about some plans to him, things we might have to change, but he's only human and going forward there's no doubt we can get him out."
"He's allowed to play good cricket shots, but I think we didn't bowl that really good ball consistently enough to him to build a bit of extra pressure on him and make him play the false shot. It's something we've spoken about as a bowling group and as a team moving forward in this series and hopefully that starts in Cape Town and we can get him out fairly cheaply."
Talking about de Villiers, Starc uttered the phrase "he's only human" no fewer than three times, almost as though he was trying to remind himself of the fact. Previous Australian touring teams have at times felt similar: in India in 1998 it was Sachin Tendulkar, in the West Indies in 1999, Brian Lara. More recently, the likes of Younis Khan and Joe Root have proven dominant on foreign soil. But none quite like de Villiers.
"We feel we're pretty comfortable against the rest of their batting line-up," Starc said. "I think we showed in the first Test how quickly we can go through them. He was a mainstay in the first innings of that first Test as well and again in the second Test, so they rely heavily on him and there's been a few little cameos around him. He's a fantastic batter, there's no doubt about that and he showed again in the first innings why he's one of the best in the world. We've had some lengthy discussions about some plans to him, things we might have to change, but he's only human and going forward there's no doubt we can get him out."
His array of shots and almost perpetual motion have heightened the emphasis on keeping up high standards against the rest of the batting order - Hashim Amla and Dean Elgar in particular after their obstinate 88-run stand to set the scene for de Villiers in the second Test. One thing Starc flagged was a more stumps-oriented attack, focused upon bowled or lbw dismissals more so than the traditional Australian pursuit of edges for a waiting wicketkeeper and slips cordon.
"We did speak about that. It wasn't pretty to watch, but they found a way to get through some tough times," Starc said. "We didn't get the rewards in the first couple of sessions and that was a little bit disappointing from the bowling group but at the same time we shut the scoreboard down and built some good pressure there and had I think over 35 plays and misses, which is a positive but also a negative in the fact we didn't take the wickets.
"It was nice to get a few rewards there in the third session, then their tail wagged and put on a few runs with AB, which wasn't ideal and put us behind the eight-ball a bit there as well. We probably didn't bowl too poorly, it was very consistent, and it's about keeping that consistency and not going for huge amounts of runs, but obviously creating more chances, attacking those stumps a little bit more.
"Conditions are going to play a part there and now with Rabada out, conditions might change and the wickets might be a little bit different for the last two. So we'll assess that in Cape Town and again Johannesburg, but we'll have to talk a little bit about perhaps attacking those stumps more or at least creating a few more full chances rather than a handful of half chances."
Ten days off will help, too. "[33.4] overs in the first innings takes a bit of a toll on the body," Starc said. "Every time you pull on the baggy green there's enough incentive there. You put all that tiredness and mental fatigue to one side because if you compete for 10 days you win a series and a lot of guys can switch off from there."