Two deliveries. That’s all it took for AB de Villiers to remind South Africans what they have been missing.
The first of them produced a glorious front-foot drive through extra cover for four. No great shakes – after all, Mashrafe Mortaza had overpitched. But only de Villiers could have played the next shot. Mortaza’s delivery was a fraction short, but it kept low and was headed for the stumps. Yet de Villiers bent his knees to meet the ball at its height, swivelled on his toes in a flash and sent the ball racing away in front of square.
In two deliveries, he was up and running with 15 runs from 10 balls, the cobwebs from three and a half months on the sidelines already clearing. “It took me an over or so to remember that I had a good net in Kimberley and I am in good form,” he said afterwards. “I had to remind myself that I am hitting the ball well. Having not been with the team the last few months I was extra nervous.”
The next 94 deliveries were an exhibition.
If he wasn’t coming down the pitch to slap the offside deliveries through or over the cover region for four, he was maneuvering himself inside the line to sweep over square leg for six. Every strike point was at least a yard in front of the crease. As he does when he is at his best, de Villiers reversed the relationship between batsman and bowler. Bangladesh could hardly be described as bowling to him, because that would suggest they at least started the exchange with an element of control. When de Villiers is in this mood, there is no doubt about who is in charge. He is not reacting to the bowler; the bowler is too busy reacting to him.
By the time he went to his first hundred in 22 ODI innings, thoughts had switched from what South Africa had been missing to what the future could hold now that they have him back.
The de Villiers of 2017 had seemed a distracted beast of whom too little was known. He made simple pronouncements about his intentions but left too much unsaid, leaving room for conjecture. First he said he needed some time off from Tests in order to focus on the 2019 World Cup. Family was also part of it. The New Zealand Tests were ruled out. Then England. At the Champions Trophy, with South Africa faltering, de Villiers looked distracted and unusually uncertain. Questions were asked about his captaincy. South Africa failed, horribly. At some point he launched an app. He stayed on to lead the Twenty20 side in England, then departed with some muddled comments that suggested his future could be tied to the identity of South Africa’s new coach.
Perhaps that link to the coach was overblown, because on Wednesday he didn’t remember it. But he did say: “I needed a couple of months away with the family. I saw my second boy grow up which is really nice. Ottis (Gibson) made contact. I had met him before he was announced as the coach. I always knew he was a great guy. He wanted to know where I was headed with my career, and all I told him was I wanted to get back in the side as soon as possible. I enjoyed the first off-season I have had in 13 years. I got in the gym and got fit again, and worked on a few technical things in my game.”
After months of speculation, it was a relief to everyone that they could finally sit back and watch de Villiers in full flow on Wednesday – and do so without the nagging concern that the spectacle could be ripped away from the international game at any point. He has committed himself to the Proteas in all three formats now, which could lead to a Test return on Boxing Day – “if selected”.
Not only will de Villiers be around, but perhaps these sort of innings will become more common. South Africa have a new coach who, de Villiers said, “brings a different feel to the team. He’s quite a confident man who knows what he wants. You get the feeling we know where we are going as a team with him as coach.”
But more important, de Villiers is no longer burdened by the captaincy, a job that most will now acknowledge he was not best suited for. When asked about the factors related to his decision to relinquish the post, de Villiers said: “I had a long run as a captain. I had some fantastic ups, and also quite a few lows in between. I just felt like it was enough. I wanted to enjoy the last few years of my career. I know what Faf (du Plessis) is capable of as captain, and I think he’s going to become one of the best leaders we have had in this country. He could be the best. We’re going to give him all the support we can.”
A new coach, a new captain, and if Wednesday is anything to go by, a rejuvenated de Villiers. South Africa have missed him. Time will tell whether living with that longing was a small price to pay for the contributions he now has to give.