Published On: Wed, Feb 28th, 2018

Expectations high for de Villiers' final duel with Australia

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Enjoy him while you still can, especially if you are Australian. While AB de Villiers has not made any official announcement about his Test future, this is probably the last ‘big’ series he will play for South Africa and more than likely the last time he will play against Australia. And the good news is that he is “very motivated, especially for this series,” according to his captain Faf du Plessis, who is “expecting big things”.

De Villiers missed out on South Africa’s tour to Australia in November 2016, because of an elbow injury and then took a Test sabbatical for most of 2017. He missed tours of New Zealand and England and a home series against Bangladesh and it was widely expected that he would not return to the longest format. Du Plessis, who led South Africa to victory over Australia in an acting captaincy capacity and was then given the role permanently, said in England last August that he “did not expect AB to come back into the Test team”.

But, de Villiers had planned to return for this home summer and said he was targeting the Tests against India and Australia. He also strongly indicated that may be his final red-ball dalliance.

“My dream plan is to come back for those eight Test matches [South Africa were originally scheduled to play four Tests against each of India and Australia] and that’s all I can say for now,” he said in January 2017. “My focus is on the 2019 World Cup but if I feel physically incapable of making it after those two Test series, I will call it a day then. I’ll make that call once we get there. I can’t decide now how I am going to feel in 12 months.”

Those 12 months have now passed and things have mostly gone according to plan for de Villiers. He will, barring anything untoward occurring, play in eight Tests, having made his comeback in the Boxing Day Test against Zimbabwe. He has already made a decisive impact on his return: De Villiers’ 65 against India at Newlands changed the tempo of an innings that could have gone badly wrong for South Africa – they were 12 for 3 when he went out to bat – and his 80 at SuperSport Park helped build a series-winning lead. He has not had a three-figure score yet, but the way du Plessis is talking, one may be coming over the next five weeks.

“What I can tell you is that he is extremely motivated,” du Plessis said. “AB understands that he is one of the best in the world and if he has a quiet series, it makes him want to do more. He doesn’t want people talking about him not performing so I know the motivation will be high.”

But what after that? South Africa’s Test assignments before the World Cup are a tour to Sri Lanka, a home series against Sri Lanka and another against Pakistan. With respect to both countries, they are not regarded as premier opposition. That honour goes to Australia, England and India, Australia perhaps more so than any of the others because of the rivalry between them and South Africa. “It’s the most competitive series that you play. We are both very passionate and competitive cricketing nations and we try and leave all out on the field,” du Plessis said.

Beyond that, it is all a bit of a mystery. The schedule after the World Cup will likely depend on the new FTP and the Test Championship and, with the growth of T20 leagues and his own age, de Villiers may not want to play international cricket beyond the 2019 tournament. So this could well be his last hurrah, though du Plessis was not going to hazard a guess. “I tried to speak on behalf of him before and that also didn’t help,” du Plessis joked. “So your guess is as good as mine.”

What is certain is that this series will be the last for Morne Morkel, who on Monday announced he would retire from the international game after the series. With Morkel six Test wickets away from 300 – a milestone that should come up in this series – and unless more goodbyes become apparent, the matches will be a celebration of him and the work he has done for South Africa since debuting in Durban in December 2006.

“Morne is an absolute legend and servant of South African cricket,” du Plessis said. “He will be missed. He is a difficult guy to replace; experienced seamers are very important. The good thing is that we’ve got Lungi Ngidi coming through to take his place when the time is there and we’ve got Dale Steyn hoping to get back as well.”

Steyn, who will only return in time for the third Test, if he does at all for this series, is also chasing a milestone. He is three wickets away from becoming South Africa’s all-time leading wicket-taker in Test cricket and, should he get there, he may also struggle to find reasons to keep playing.

The same can be said for all of South Africa’s senior core. Hashim Amla, Vernon Philander and even du Plessis could all be playing against Australia for the last time. While they have all beaten Australia in Australia, none of them have had the same success at home. This is their chance for a valedictory series, if not from the format, then against Australia, their most important rival.

When asked about the end-of-an-era prospect this series presents, du Plessis did not get too nostalgic. He painted a picture of his own plan for the next while but, like so many that have gone before, left it pretty open-ended. “I don’t look too far in the future. As I sit now, I still feel like I have got a lot left in the tank. That can change over a season or two. Right now, over the next two years, I’m looking at playing for this team in all formats.”

So enjoy them all while you still can.



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