Match Analysis

De Villiers' return sparks hope and concern

His comeback innings promised something special on one hand. On the other, it left several big questions unanswered for South Africa, especially around team combination

AB de Villiers scored a half-century on his Test return, South Africa v Zimbabwe, only Test, 1st day, Port Elizabeth, December 26, 2017


It was the short, slower delivery AB de Villiers picked off Kyle Jarvis, the one he swivelled to get under and slapped over deep square leg, the ball he sent into the stands; it was that ball that has the story to tell. And it's a long story. Twenty-three months long.
That's how long we have waited to see him in Test whites. That's how long we have wondered if we would ever see him play a Test again. That's how long the South African team has had to deal with the uncertainty surrounding its superstar's future, and how long it has tried to find new heroes. How difficult that has been.
Let's be honest, although Dean Elgar will end the year among the three top run-scorers in Test cricket and has built a sturdy reputation for being reliable, although Hashim Amla is a modern great, although Faf du Plessis is an astute and likeable captain, although Aiden Markram and Temba Bavuma and Quinton de Kock are the players people will talk about in the future, none of them are AB de Villiers. None of them command the same awe, not even Amla, who has more Test runs and more Test centuries than de Villiers.
None of them are worshipped, and that word is used deliberately, because that is the league de Villiers is in. The IPL is mostly responsible for taking him there, but his own records and his massive range of strokes do help. Whatever the reason, de Villiers is revered and so, when he decided to take a sabbatical from the longest format following an injury, he was, by and large, more missed than criticised by the public. Some voices (this one included) questioned his decision to pick and choose, and worried about how the team would adapt to de Villiers' whims of when he wanted to play and when he didn't. But most people only cared that he did want to play again, whenever, wherever, against whoever.
So maybe it's fitting that de Villiers made his Test comeback in front of less than 5,000 people, at a festive St George's Park, against an opposition who are more preoccupied with how privileged they consider themselves to be playing against him than plotting his downfall. It's even fitting that de Villiers made the comeback in the unusual role of stand-in Test captain, the same job he had when he walked away in January 2016. It's sort of like he has completed a circle. And that ball finished the circle.
De Villiers played some aggressive strokes before that shot - a nifty whip past midwicket, a gorgeous drive down the ground, and a pull and a slice off the short ball from Blessing Muzarabani - but it was that six that said he had really settled. And that Zimbabwe had missed a trick.
Early on his innings, de Villiers was obviously uncomfortable against the handful of balls he faced from Graeme Cremer. The legspinning Zimbabwe captain beat de Villiers' outside edge with the fourth delivery he bowled, having lured de Villiers far enough down the crease to almost create a stumping chance. With his next ball, Cremer beat de Villiers on the drive. De Villiers only faced two more balls from Cremer before the tea interval and, curiously, Cremer did not bring himself back on after the break. Had Cremer continued and been able to create more sustained pressure on de Villiers, Zimbabwe's chances of a breakthrough would have been higher. But the seamers were brought on and de Villiers had time to find his rhythm, and Zimbabwe paid the price.
With that six, it was as though de Villiers was telling them, "Your only chance of dismissing me now is when I get bored of your mediocrity." Because that's what it was. Not only are Zimbabwe not exactly a threatening side, they are also not consistent and the gap between them and South Africa is obviously widening.
Luckily for them, the batsmen they dismissed before dinner - possibly barring Aiden Markram, who was out to one on a testing line - all got bored. De Villiers did too, 28 balls and 19 runs later. Even more luckily for them, it was just at the point where de Villiers was really starting to accelerate. He was beginning to play more flamboyantly when he popped a return catch to Chris Mpofu and ended his comeback innings teasingly. There were glimpses of the de Villiers of old, and then it was over. It promised something, but did not deliver it all. It suggested there was more to come.
And the more came as early as 40 minutes before the scheduled close of play. In a perfect storm, de Villiers was also required to keep wicket when Quinton de Kock suffered what appeared to be a hamstring tweak while batting. Squatting behind the stumps for hours on end is exactly what aggravated de Villiers' back problems all those months ago and talk of his workload issues became most prominent when he was forced to keep in the first Test against England in December 2015. Then, Dane Vilas had been dropped after a disastrous tour of India and de Kock had yet to be recalled. That week, reports surfaced that de Villiers was considering early retirement. The following week, de Kock was recalled and de Villiers relieved of keeping duties. The week after that, he was made stand-in captain. He hinted it was all too much but, now, on comeback, he had to do it all again.
De Villiers is a Test cricketer again and, theoretically, that should mean a better, more-watchable South African Test team. Practically, it has left a lot of unanswered questions. De Villiers return was going to cause a selection headache because South Africa's current team balance accommodates only six batsmen, an allrounder, three seamers and a spinner, but when du Plessis became unavailable, de Villiers was a straight swap into the starting XI. Why de Villiers was also installed as captain is a matter of some controversy, and, ESPNcricinfo has learned, not everybody in the set-up supported the appointment.
What will those people say when, next week, if du Plessis is fully fit for the first Test against India, there needs to be a decision made about which batsman misses out? South Africa still have a get-out clause because they could bench the allrounder and revert to the seven-batsmen strategy, which would accommodate for both de Villiers and du Plessis, but they will then need to be absolutely sure the three seamers they select are 100% fit. Their performance later in this match will provide an indication but, with Dale Steyn out with a viral infection, at least one of the quicks will go into the India series untested in recent international action.
That South Africa did not grapple with these conundrums in what is effectively a warm-up Test before the main events (India and Australia) has only delayed the inevitable. They will have to make some decisions, around players of the calibre of de Villiers and Steyn - who have reputation but not match-fitness on their sides. The issues around Steyn may end up being easier because, across seven Tests, chances are high that South Africa will need at least four quicks.
The issues around de Villiers are a little more complicated. It may sound as though they are only around transformation - because the batsman most likely to have to make way is Temba Bavuma, who is black African - but they are also about team balance and de Villiers' own workload. Just two days before this match, the man himself admitted his back remains a concern from time to time. For now, de Villiers being back, rather than his actual back, is a cause of celebration. But this is not the end of the story. Just ask that ball.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent