Mitchell Starc, the left-arm spearhead, has conceded Australia will need to devise new strategies to curb AB de Villiers after being rattled by the South African master batsman in Port Elizabeth.
The former South Africa captain cracked a brilliant unbeaten century in the first innings during a match-turning knock to lead the Proteas to a series-levelling victory. It was Australia’s first Test defeat when armed with the pace attack of Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins after five consecutive victories.
Australia’s blue-chip attack had no answer for the brilliance of de Villiers, who launched an audacious counterattack with his trademark inventiveness. At one point, Starc was directed by captain Steven Smith to bowl down the leg-side at de Villiers in a strategy aimed to keep him off-strike for the next over.
“I can’t say I was too happy with that either,” Starc told reporters on Friday (March 16) about the defensive tactic. “Look, if the captain tells me to do something I’m going to do it, aren’t I?”
Starc revealed Australia’s brains trust had strategised to stymie de Villiers ahead of next week’s crucial third Test. “We’ve had some lengthy discussions about some plans to him, things we might have to change, but he’s only human, and going forward there’s no doubt we can get him out,” he said. “He seems to be able to play a couple of different shots to the same length ball, so your margin for error is a lot less to someone like him. So you’ve got to think outside the box a lot more with him.”
Australia’s attack was initially blunted by the rugged defence from opener Dean Algar and No. 3 Hashim Amla before seemingly tiring against de Villiers and the tail late in the innings. Starc believed Australia’s attack have let the 34-year-old off the hook with wayward bowling during the series.
“A good ball’s still a good ball to any batter in world cricket, it’s just bowling them more consistently, changing the field a little bit and maybe cutting off a couple of scoring areas for him as well,” he said. “That’s one thing we didn’t do well enough to him in the first innings (in Durban), we didn’t bowl enough good balls. He’s allowed to play good cricket shots, but I think we didn’t bowl that really good ball consistently enough to him to build a bit of extra pressure on him and make him play the false shot.
“It’s something we’ve spoken about as a bowling group and as a team, and hopefully that starts in Cape Town and we can get him out fairly cheaply,” he added.
Starc destroyed South Africa’s tail in both innings of the first Test with a lethal concoction of reverse swing but was thwarted by de Villiers’s propping of the tail in Port Elizabeth. “We feel we’re pretty comfortable against the rest of their batting line-up. I think we showed in the first Test how quickly we can go through them,” Starc said. “But he (de Villiers) has been the lynchpin for them.”
Australia’s chances of a rebound in Cape Town will markedly rise if South African speed sensation Kagiso Rabada is ruled out of the remainder of the series. Rabada was man-of-the-match in the second Test after a scintillating 11-wicket haul but has been found guilty of disciplinary breaches and suspended for two Tests.
However, Cricket South Africa has confirmed it will challenge Rabada’s penalty although an overturn of the suspension is considered unlikely.
With South Africa’s talisman potentially missing, Starc believed the Cape Town pitch could be prepared differently from the opening two Tests where the decks were dry and conjured reverse swing.
“If Rabada’s not playing, there might be a little more sideways movement with the newer ball for someone like Philander or Morne (Morkel), which obviously brings Josh or Pat into the mix as well,” he said. “We’re just going to have to adapt to the conditions that are put in front of us. But they (pitches) could change away from that – the reverse swing – without Rabada there.”