TELFORD VICE, Johannesburg
NEVER in his storied career has AB de Villiers faced a challenge as big as that which awaits him at the Wanderers on Thursday.
Although he has led SA 91 times in pyjamas, De Villiers will walk out in whites as the captain of a first-class team for the first time in what will be his 131st match in the format.
And in not just any match: the third test against England, who lead the series 1-0.
How might De Villiers, a wonderfully instinctive player blessed with a breathtaking immediacy of action, fare as a captain when careful is required?
“One of the most crucial factors is if the person wants to captain,” former SA coach Eric Simons said.
“Herschelle Gibbs understood the game well and always came to you with contributions, but he never wanted to captain. Graeme Smith wanted to, so it’s important that AB wants to.
“Captains need to have a feel for the game, and they need to be able to connect with people and understand them. Sometimes, that means jabbing a finger in someone’s face. Other times, it means putting and arm around their shoulders.”
We are about to find out how much of that bill De Villiers fits, but we do know that of the 37 series of at least two tests played in SA since readmission, visiting team have won six. Only once have that team not been Australia – in 2004-05, when they were England.
De Villiers will know this only too well. He made his debut in that series, as did Dale Steyn.
To De Villiers now falls the responsibility for making sure England do not win at the Wanderers. If he fails SA will lose the No. 1 ranking.
Steyn will feel a different heat. His chances of recovering from a shoulder strain were described as “50/50” on Wednesday.
Even if Steyn is pronounced fit, should SA gamble on him considering Kingsmead was his return from a groin injury that prevented him from bowling beyond the first innings of the first test in India in November?
No, especially with the presence in the squad of Hardus Viljoen, who took 20 wickets at 14.00 in his first two franchise first-class matches this season. But Viljoen was called up as cover for Kyle Abbott, who has since recovered from his tight hamstring.
Besides, Stephen Cook, who scored his second franchise first-class century in as many innings yesterday but remains out of the test squad despite Stiaan van Zyl’s struggles at the top of the test order could tell Viljoen a thing or two about selectorial silliness.
That said, the selectors have reason not to take domestic performances too seriously. JP Duminy and Dane Vilas, both freshly dropped from the test squad, scored double centuries this weekend.
The only other Saffer still raging hard at it in this series was, in that 2004-05 rubber, a young man with a crooked backlift who scored 36 runs in four innings.
Hashim Amla has grown into an infinitely better player than he was then, but he has not cut it as a captain. His brave resignation is why De Villiers will be SA’s captain on Thursday.
The hopes of a nation will carry him to the middle for the toss. But should he hear something thumping in his memory he should ignore it: 11 years ago, England clinched the series with victory at the Wanderers.