By Ali Martin/The Guardian
England’s tour of South Africa has moved on from Cape Town to the Highveld, nearly 6,000 feet above sea level for this week’s third Test at the Wanderers in Johannesburg where the home side begin afresh under their most gifted cricketer, Abraham Benjamin de Villiers.
An unchanged Proteas squad land into the capital of Gauteng province on Monday morning, 1-0 down with but with some confidence restored following the battling draw at Newlands in which Hashim Amla signed off from the captaincy with a double-hundred and the honest admission that it would be better if someone else was in charge.
For the final two Tests of the series, that someone is De Villiers, their premier batsman, one-day captain and veteran of 104 Tests now finally stepping up to the job he was so publicly disappointed to miss out on when, after 11 years under the indomitable Graeme Smith ended in 2014, the mild-mannered Amla got the nod from Cricket South Africa.
It is a move that has certainly provided a twist to the plot of an already intriguing series, not least when you consider how it began for De Villiers: having previously been pressed into wicketkeeping duties, the first Test was only a day old when in a television interview he was already talking of reducing his workload.
He was responding to, but not flatly denying, a report of his impending retirement that had appeared in an Afrikaans newspaper.
Perhaps it is why Cricket South Africa have not committed to De Villiers’ captaincy in Test cricket beyond seeing out the current series, although with the team’s next assignment not until August, at home to New Zealand, there is no urgent rush; a permanent successor to Amla will likely not be named until a board meeting in July.
Both De Villiers and the board are seeing how the land lies here too, with the 31-year-old, like others in the squad, understood to be considering a deal to play in July’s Caribbean Premier League, filling what would be his only extended spell of downtime this year. When the rand is weak, as at present, the lure of Twenty20 overseas grows stronger for their senior core.
However they got there, it feels like the Proteas have the right man in charge for their immediate predicament and the highly-respected Amla, who informed senior players of his decision midway through the Cape Town Test, is now free to focus solely on his batting.
For the rest of us looking on, it is a chance to finally find out what type of Test captain the wonderfully talented AB will be.
While grown as one-day captain over the past four years following a shaky start, there is nothing to go on in terms of his prior record in red-ball cricket; when he pulls on his green blazer on Thursday morning and walks out to the middle with Alastair Cook for the toss, it will be the first time he has ever captained a game of first-class cricket.
But when discussing a remarkable individual like De Villiers - owner of the fastest 50, 100 and 150 in one-day cricket, with an average in excess of 47 in each of his past eight calendar years as a Test cricketer - this lack of leadership experience in whites scarcely feels noteworthy.
Great players do not come with a guarantee of being great captains, of course, but considering the way he plays his cricket, it seems doubtful he will be the cautious type.
As a batsman, the right-hander has multiple options with which to strike any given delivery - his nickname is Mr 360 - so one rather suspects his tactics will be towards the proactive end of the spectrum.
Ominously for the tourists, the responsibility of captaincy in one-day cricket has taken him to new heights as a batsman in that format too, with his average over the past four years a staggering 69.28, 24 runs more than when merely among the rank and file.
South Africa, entering must-win territory for the series itself and, it has been rumoured, their head coach Russell Domingo, will hope this to be the case in Test cricket, and that this change at the tiller can provide the kind of bounce intended when struggling football clubs replace their manager.
But, as countless relegated sides will tell you, there are no guarantees, and De Villiers looks set to start without his most dangerous weapon, the attack leader Dale Steyn, who is still struggling with the shoulder injury that saw him pull up during the defeat at Durban and miss the Cape Town stalemate altogether.
The Wanderers is historically a result pitch with only one draw in the past 15 Test matches, and South Africa are already discussing playing four seamers, with Kyle Abbott, fit again after a hamstring strain, and the uncapped quick Hardus Viljoen vying to replace either the spinner Dane Piedt or the opener Stiaan van Zyl; the latter scenario needs the batsman Temba Bavuma to move up the order.
England, who arrived on Johannesburg yesterday after three days of rest, may have been a little rattled by a fifth-day wobble at Newlands but are more settled than their hosts and plan to be unchanged at this stage.
There is no room for complacency however, especially, now that AB has the (C) at the end of his name.
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