Cape Town – The merry-go-round surrounding AB de Villiers’s place in the South Africa batting order when he returns to the Test picture imminently gathered pace at the Wanderers on Thursday.
An often sumptuous, record-breaking third-wicket partnership of 292 between established maestro Hashim Amla, fittingly on his 100th appearance, and under-scrutiny JP Duminy thoroughly demoralised Sri Lanka on the opening day of the dead-rubber third Test.
But it also only cranked up further the debate around where to station elite stroke-player De Villiers, who looked a picture of freshness and optimism when interviewed by SuperSport commentator Shaun Pollock pitch-side shortly before the start of play.
The Titans star confirmed that he felt “100 percent fit again” and simply needs now to “hit some cricket balls” ahead of readiness for international duty after his long-term injury layoff.
He was effectively also saying that he fully intends being available for the first Test of the next series, against New Zealand in Dunedin from March 8. That is conveniently preceded by the one-day portion of the tour, which should see De Villiers sharpen himself even more suitably.
Until the start of the Bullring Test, a lobby was understandably advocating De Villiers slotting straight into the No 4 berth at the expense of Duminy -- possibly with the diminutive left-hander returning to a lower slot at No 6 and thus threatening the status of Temba Bavuma, another who has generally had a tough time in the runs column of late.
But what has – often healthily – been happening in the weeks leading up to De Villiers’s inevitable comeback is a dogged bid at varying times by incumbents not to surrender either their specific positions or places in the XI entirely in some cases.
Duminy is just the latest to come roaring back to light (a career second-best 155) at a mightily convenient time, slightly eclipsing Amla for majesty at the crease even as his great partner savoured the fairy-tale occurrence of a century of his own on 100th appearance.
Amla burst back to normal personal service, really, as he became the eighth player to register a three-figure score in his 100th Test and second South African after Graeme Smith.
The unassuming No 3 would not have minded a bit that Duminy stole his thunder for rollicking intent and assuredness on the day from one rung lower, either.
Duminy was quite brilliant a lot of the time, in initially challenging conditions, even if those who have torn their hair out for years over his struggle to deliver the goods consistently may be tempted to suggest this performance simply veered once again to the positive extreme of his fickle tendencies.
But it has also been his second really major score from No 4 in six Tests: the first was a game-swaying second-innings 141 against Australia at Perth in November, and now this statement-making effort in a first-dig scenario.
Of his six Test centuries, three have come from the prize position plenty of pundits have believed he is not up to gracing – and in fairness, there is humdrum statistical evidence from his overall batting statistics in five-dayers to suggest that, yes, he is a quirky choice there.
The fact remains that his brighter, tougher-looking body language may just be translating at long last to healthier delivery at the crease.
There were precious few false shots from Duminy on Thursday, albeit against an attack that looked increasingly more popgun and leaden, and his ability to slightly alter his placement and timing of the connection for field-piercing effect in mid-stroke was just another hallmark to admire.
With this showing, it looks a bit less cut and dried that De Villiers will just waltz back into Duminy’s current position when the SA Test campaign shifts to New Zealand.
Former national captain Kepler Wessels is not one for extravagant praise, so for him to describe the knock as “absolutely sensational” was quite some tribute.
Since moving up to No 4, Wessels observed, Duminy had “grown in stature … he backs himself not just to survive”.
He added: “He knows his job now. There was that time when he was put at No 7, and expected to be a batsman who bowls as well … but (it aids his focus that) he is hardly bowling in Tests these days.”
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