Hitting form ... South African batsman A.B. de Villiers. Photo: AFP
Sometimes it's not how many, it's how. South Africa's batting exhibition over the past two days has had a playfulness that goes far beyond the whirring of the numbers on the scoreboard.
It surprises no one that the Proteas can pile up runs. What distinguishes the 2012-13 team from previous versions is batting that has, at the weekend, expressed a rare joie de vivre.
Ever since Hashim Amla started wandering towards cover when facing John Hastings, blithely flicking the ball away as if brushing something from his lapel while on a country stroll, there was a new quality in this innings. It might be called arrogance or disdain, but that would be to give the batting a malevolence it didn't deserve.
Talented ... Amla is not an arrogant batsman, just a supremely gifted one. Photo: Getty Images
Amla is not an arrogant batsman, just a supremely gifted one. He didn't intend to give the bowlers an inferiority complex. He just ended up having that effect on them. In the first innings here he was out of sync, as if the timing belt had gone out of his internal machinery. From the first ball of his second innings, he had made the necessary adjustments and met everything with a sugar hit out of his sweet spot.
A.B. de Villiers had so far had a cramped kind of series with the bat. When runs were there for the taking in the first innings in Brisbane and Adelaide, he seized up. When pure defence was needed to draw those matches, he had changed his game to give his team what it needed. But where was the real de Villiers? Had his batting been dulled by his hours of glovework?
Apparently not. This most talented all-round sportsman has brought new elements into his game without losing the old ones. Like Victor Trumper, he is a batsman who has a Chinese restaurant-length menu of alternative shots for the same delivery. So when the Australian pacemen put the ball on a mechanical length around the off stump, de Villiers could as easily let it run off the face of his bat behind point as roll it across his body through mid-wicket, or, with a shimmy of his hips, wriggle it around behind square leg. The bowlers could find no containing length; he turned every ball into de Villiers length. Against Nathan Lyon's spin, de Villiers seemed to have advance information on where the ball would be bowled, and if he didn't, it didn't matter.
He advanced from 89 to his century in three balls, all passable off-breaks, all swept to the boundary. Not swept in the normal way - two men guarded the leg side - but reverse-swept, against the spin, against the laws of nature. This was A.B. 101: the uncanny eye, the fiendishly difficult unorthodoxy made to look easy. In a few years, in the hands of such batsmen the reverse sweep has been turned from a novelty act into a shot with which the practitioner may delete the ''nervous'' from ''nineties''.
Was this arrogance? No more than a Great Dane can be said to have an arrogant face. The South Africans were batting from instinct, and this time their instinct was allowed to adapt freely to the needs of the moment. In this series, their batting has come in three flavours. Australia expected the diligence of Brisbane and dreaded the ingrained grit of the second innings in Adelaide. What they feared was the shot-making flair of Perth. Eighteen years after the ANC took power, this was the new South Africa on the cricket field.
Australia can't be said to have stopped trying. Mitchell Johnson gave real meaning to the phrase ''changing the angle of attack'', going around the wicket to Amla so that his wrist position was somewhere near mid-off. Johnson bowled fast at times, swung the ball, and justified his selection. Mitchell Starc picked up the lower-order treats, and the other Australian bowlers were willing, even Ricky Ponting, who risked everything by hurling down his first bouncer in more than a decade: almost a sandshoe-crusher at the bowler's end.
The Australians' catching, moreover, was quite outstanding. Lyon's and Johnson's on Saturday, and Johnson's three further grabs on Sunday were the type of catches that win matches. Maybe not this one, but they illustrated the fielding effort of a team that was, if outplayed, at least not embarrassed.