After two losses early in the five-match series, AB de Villiers urged his team-mates to keep believing in themselves © Getty Images
If AB de Villiers was less experienced, South Africa might have lost the series to England on Sunday. If AB de Villiers was less experienced, 22 for 3 would have been a hole too deep for him to dig his team out of. If AB de Villiers was less experienced, 237 would have been too much to chase. But AB de Villiers was playing in his 200th ODI and knew exactly what to do: embrace the situation and then overcome it.
“You live for those pressure moments,” de Villiers said. “Through an international career, you have ups and down but you always feel you are gong to be tested in moments like that. It has taken me years to feel comfortable and to feel like I have good composure in those situations.”
De Villiers knew that after a top-order tumble South Africa needed cool heads. Luckily, he had his calmest team-mate, Hashim Amla, on hand to provide that.
“The chat between us was not to worry about the runs and to make sure we get in and not lose another wicket,” he explained. “We’ve done it before. I felt it was really important to take it 10 runs at a time and get to a fifty-run partnership.”
After 58 balls together, de Villiers and Amla had that. They’d also survived a squeeze, punished some poor balls and given themselves some breathing room. After another 48 balls, that stand had doubled and South Africa were safe. The captain’s decision to drop himself one lower than the No.4 position he usually bats looked like a stroke of genius and the victory target was well within reach.
“I like to push myself a little bit down when we are chasing. I feel I handle the pressure situations well and that’s why I want to be there at the end,” de Villiers said. And if he is there at the end, the South Africans always feel they have a chance.
More than his ability and audacious strokeplay, it’s de Villiers’ attitude that keeps his countrymen and, in the space of the last week, his team-mates hopeful. With South Africa 2-0 down, de Villiers rallied his troops and asked them “to keep believing”.
He admitted that in facing the prospect of a second series defeat at home in the same summer, they were in a “really dark space”, but that he wanted them to snap out of it.
“I asked them to keep spirits up. I asked them to keep believing and have the faith we can come back,” he said. “We showed inspirational videos here and there but we tried to focus on the basics and do the small things right and well, and created more pressure than England and then things went our way.”
South Africa also made key personnel changes when they realised the precariousness of their position. They stopped relying on JP Duminy and Farhaan Behardien, to operate as the fifth bowler and brought in an allrounder to give them 10 overs. They shortened their batting line-up from a specialist point of view but added two genuine finishers and seemed to find a better balance, even if it’s not something they will stick with long-term.
“I like to think we haven’t moved away from that seven-batsmen option,” de Villiers said. “But David (Wiese) and Chris (Morris) brought a different dynamic. Change was needed after the first two ODIs and they breathed an air of confidence into the side.”
Wiese has been the more consistent of the two but Morris will be remembered as the hero after his match-winning innings of 62 at the Wanderers. His knock there kept South Africa alive. It gave them the belief de Villiers sought but they still could have drowned in the wave of emotion that match swept over them. That they didn’t only shows how desperate they were to finish the job.
“We took a lot of confidence from that but after an emotional game like that, it’s easy to lose your fighting spirit,” de Villiers said. “We were just maybe a bit more hungry than England to really nail it down.”
Even so, he praised the opposition for giving South Africa a wake-up call and a warning for what they will offer in tournaments to come. “They are a fantastic one-day team,” he said. “To come back from rock bottom in that 2015 World Cup. The talent was always there but mentally they had to get through a few obstacles.
“Morgs played a big part in that. Even though he didn’t have a great series with the bat, he still had the right body language. He is the right man to take England forward. They will be a team to deal with in the next few years, especially at the 2017 Champions Trophy and 2019 World Cup.”
If de Villiers keeps performing like he did at Newlands, so might South Africa.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo’s South Africa correspondent
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Source: ESPN Crickinfo