Pat Cummins to Faf du Plessis – March 2018, Australia vs South Africa – 1st Test, Durban
Cummins lands the ball short of a length, seams the ball back into the right-handed Proteas skipper and cleaned him up comprehensively, the stumps cartwheeling behind du Plessis.
Such was the impact of that dismissal that Cricket Australia made the image of the stump flipping behind du Plessis the background image of their website.
Australia had du Plessis sorted out but not the previous skipper, AB de Villiers. Despite their dominant victory at Durban, de Villiers hurt them sorely at Port Elizabeth in a series-levelling win.
The Superman had also been the only South African batsman to put up a fight in the first innings at Durban. He weathered everything Australia hurled at him, batted supremely well and took the fight to the visitors single-handedly. Alas, he lacked support, though.
After the match-winning ton at Port Elizabeth, Australia – Pat Cummins in particular – would have been scratching their heads cluelessly.
de Villiers had been particularly harsh on Australia’s best seamer on display – Cummins. In 79 balls he faced from the Aussie seamer this series, de Villiers scored 70 runs at a strike rate of 88.60.
Pat Cummins' average length in this Test is 6.8 m. To deliveries on a shorter length than 8.5 m, his economy in this game has been 1.33 runs per over against all batsmen apart from AB de Villiers.
Against de Villiers those short lengths have gone for 9.33 runs per over.#SAvAus
— The Cricket Prof. (@CricProf) March 11, 2018
Against Starc, another of Australia’s most threatening bowlers, de Villiers struck 46 runs in 63 balls. That both of these came with him in control 9/10 times shows the sheer class of de Villiers.
Even after four innings, Australia still seem completely wonderstruck on how to break past South Africa’s marauding middle-order batsman.
“We’ll have another meeting on their whole team, but yeah, him [de Villiers] in particular. We obviously struggled a bit so far. He’s just gotten off the mark and got to that 20 or 30 runs quite easily and we’ve probably gifted that to him a little bit. Probably just starting better against him and treating him like any other player really and bowl good balls more often than not,” Hazlewood had said in the long interim between Tests.
The issue here is good balls haven’t really bothered de Villiers. He walked in to bat with the ball reversing wildly against an unrestrained beast, Mitchell Starc. It took him no more than two deliveries to analyse the degree of swing, the angle of deliveries and pace, so much so that he was driving off the front foot nonchalantly.
“He [de Villiers] 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,” Starc said, contrary to Hazlewood’s statement that Australia had bowled poorly to him.
Steven Smith had apparently instructed Starc to bowl outside leg-stump to de Villiers at Port Elizabeth in order to deny him runs while batting with the tail.
That, in all fairness, seems like Australia’s sole plan against the Proteas batsman this series. But is there a chink in de Villiers’ enviable armoury?
That Cummins was the bowler de Villiers targetted is bizarre for he seems to be the right man to get rid of the South African. The Australian seamer is quick, has the ability to seam the ball back into the batsman – akin to the du Plessis dismissal at Durban – and these two factors make him the most threatening bowler against de Villiers.
The South African has shown a weakness, if only minor, of late to miss balls seaming into him. This was evident in the Indian series where a prodigious Bhuvneshwar Kumar bamboozled him with a slew of outswingers before cleaning him up with a ball swinging back into him.
Jasprit Bumrah, who has a natural angle into the right-hander, also enjoyed success against de Villiers with his maiden Test scalp (again de Villiers!) coming at Cape Town in the first Test of that series.
That time he enticed de Villiers into a drive and eked out an inside edge courtesy his angle and bowled the South African. Prior to his Test hiatus, Stuart Broad and James Anderson had also troubled de Villiers with the ball coming into him, a weakness that resulted in him collecting three successive ducks before the one year break.
Cummins is capable of seaming the ball in and it could be the recipe for success against a de Villiers who seems to ride the form of his Test career.
Left-arm spinners are often thought to be his weakness but unlike in limited-overs cricket, de Villiers averages an astounding 53.13 against left-arm spinners. In fact, he is particularly good against left-arm fast bowlers too, as evidenced by an average of 55.88 against this category of bowlers.
Perhaps, this is why Australia’s ploy of dismissing the South African with Starc came apart every time. Cummins and Hazlewood appear Australia’s best bet with de Villiers reducing Lyon to a non-existent factor in the first two Tests. But can they execute it right? The margins, as Starc says, are so, so less when it comes to de Villiers.