It is no longer unexpected to see a brilliant innings from AB de Villiers, and it almost was an inevitability that he notched up his 18th Test ton to drag South Africa past both respectability and then formidability in the first innings in Port Elizabeth. The 30 year old became a record breaker on Day One by reaching 50 in his 12th consecutive Test match, and then became a centurion on Day Two as South Africa grittily edged ahead on Day Two.
Most impressive about de Villiers’ Test stats are that he has managed to improve his average on taking on the extra burden of wicket-keeping duties from a ‘mere’ 50.42 to 59.89 with the gloves, and notably his figures are not improved by ‘cashing in’ against Bangladesh and Zimbabwe – he does not have a single century against either.
What was less expected on Day Two was the support de Villiers received from the other end, he no longer has the rock that was Jacques Kallis alongside him at number 4 and so looks a little isolated in the middle order. Instead it was left to an unheralded performer to back him up, and this is what happened – today was comfortably JP Duminy’s second greatest Test knock.
Duminy has flattered to deceive at Test level since bursting onto the scene with a stunning 166* in what was just his second Test against Australia (an Aussie side incidentally also containing Mitchell Johnson and Peter Siddle). It looked then that he would step into the South African Test side and provide a perfect lower order foil to a top order containing Smith, Amla, De Villiers and Kallis. It has not quite happened. In 22 Tests Duminy has just 3 Test centuries and a nondescript average in the early to mid 30s. For a man with 15 First Class Centuries and 10000 First Class runs at 48.13, this seems a poor return. Yet it is this First Class record combined with a handy average of 39.27 in ODI cricket (and no doubt his excellent spell for Devon!) that has seen South Africa persevere with him in spite of a less than glorious Test career to date. It was this First Class record and volume of runs that Duminy leant on during his excellent knock today which has shifted the momentum of the Test series’ back in South Africa’s favour.
In this I think that there is a lesson. Since the retirement of Paul Collingwood the England selectors have been desperately trying to find another jewel in the crown. Eoin Morgan was tinkered with and found out, James Taylor got a Test then the wilderness, Johnny Bairstow had a few to prove himself, even Joe Root went from hero to zero whilst Gary Ballance has featured in a Test, Michael Carberry had one Test at his peak before being oddly thrown in for 5 when slightly past it. Nick Compton was harshly done by, while Ravi Bopara has as many tons as Duminy from half the Tests. Who remembers Samit Patel’s Test appearances as a second spinner? For the summer coming Ben Stokes is now seen as a number 6 – but for how long?
South Africa have eschewed this scattergun approach and have taken a longer term approach with Duminy. They have basically accepted that you cannot have 11 world beaters in your side, and taken the approach that Duminy’s stats suggest that he will become a ‘good’ and steady player for them in the long term.
Now they have been rewarded for their patience with this excellent knock, I’d suggest that Duminy is now likely to add further value to their investment and is certainly likely to improve his current average in the mid 30s and push it over the “decent Test batsman” mark of 40. Ultimately Duminy will most likely never be a great, but when you have players like de Villiers in your side that isn’t the issue. South Africa’s blueprint for proven performers seems to have created a formidable unit. Other countries should take note.