At 12 for 3, South Africa were looking for some calm, for someone to absorb the pressure and block out a few overs, for a little bit of good, old-fashioned Test defense. AB de Villiers was not in the mood for any of that and he used the ninth over, Bhuvneshwar Kumar’s fifth as he claimed three top-order wickets, to show it.
In five balls, de Villiers drove Bhuvneshwar through the covers twice by smothering the movement with aggression and tucking into the full length. Then, he slashed a pair of short balls through point. With that intent, de Villiers grabbed momentum by the throat, flung it up against a wall and told it, “You are going to turn around.” And it obeyed.
“Luckily our phones get taken away otherwise I would have been looking for an Uber to get back to the hotel,” South Africa’s batting coach Dale Benkenstein said. “They are a quality bowling attack and that stage I was sitting there wondering how we were going to score a run. The genius of AB de Villiers and the tenacity of the captain, that partnership got us back in the game and got that belief back in the change room. I think it was just one over where AB just changed the game. He made the bowlers have to worry about their lengths.”
De Villiers started striking at over a run a ball after that over and continued playing aggressively, finding the boundary often and forcefully. He had the perfect foil at the other end in Faf du Plessis, who set up his typical rearguard action and bedded in. Between them, South Africa benefitted to the tune of 104 runs and quickly went from being dominated to dominating. De Villiers’ ability to single-handedly change matches is well-documented, but now he seems to be doing it at will in the longer format, where South Africa are trying to play a more proactive brand of cricket.
That much was evident in the way all their batsmen played. Quinton de Kock, Vernon Philander and Keshav Maharaj all looked to get quick runs, not just because South Africa wanted to get India in as soon as possible, but also because they perhaps decided the best form of attack is to simply attack.
“As a general philosophy, as a batter you go out there to score runs, and on a wicket like that you’re not going to get many opportunities to, so I would rather they are looking to score and then your last mindset is to leave or defend. They did that well,” Benkenstein observed.
This aggressive thinking extended even towards team selection. They opted against the security of seven batsmen, by playing four quicks and a spinner in Maharaj. This meant Temba Bavuma, who has strung up gritty middle-order performances, had to miss out. Benkenstein admitted it was a difficult decision to leave him out, and by extension one of Chris Morris and Andile Phehlukwayo, but explained the need for experience swung the decision that way.
“With AB and Faf back, you’ve got your top six that all average over 40 in Test cricket,” Benkenstein said. “We wanted to go with a strong bowling attack and our best batters at this time. As a group it was felt that was the best team.”