License article

Smith must raise his game after AB de Villiers throws down gauntlet

Port Elizabeth: In the lead-up to this hugely anticipated Test series there were myriad themes explored in an effort to decipher, before a ball was bowled or an insult was uttered, who might have the edge.

Would Australia's fine record in South Africa since apartheid continue without a blemish? Would the left-armed pace of Mitchell Starc provide the crucial point of difference among the world's two best fast bowling attacks? And what sort of pitches would be unveiled, and who would they suit?

The contest between Steve Smith and AB de Villiers, two modern-day titans of batting, loomed as another major factor and so it has transpired.

To date, a magnificent de Villiers has the upper hand, having given an indication of what was to come in Durban and then swinging the second Test in South Africa's favour with more than one stroke of genius in his unbeaten 126 at St George's Park.

That feat left the 34-year-old with 197 runs for the series without getting out to any of the Australian bowlers.

Smith has not been a dud – he is averaging 32.5 here, with one half-century – but his output has been beneath his lofty standards.


The Australians will also be racking their brains about how to try and stop de Villiers.

Before the second Test, Smith talked about Austalia's intention to try and slow him down by bowling straight to the Proteas maestro. So futile were their attempts to do so that in the end, as he clocked up his 22nd Test century, they ended up bowling down the leg side to limit the damage.

De Villiers is six years older than Smith and has played 49 more Tests. Both are discussed as among the greatest batsmen of the era – with Virat Kohli, Kane Williamson and Joe Root the others generally in that category – but Smith's extraordinary Test numbers give him a clear statistical edge.

The mild-mannered South African, though, can do freakish things with the bat and when he is on, there is arguably no one better to watch.

Importantly, he is also very fresh here, having only returned from a two-year break from the international game last December.

Burnt out before then, he has the drive back.

"A bit of time away from the game did that," de Villiers said. "I had a lot of time to reset my thoughts and all of that, and think about where I'm going with my career and the kind of things I still want to achieve.

"I've never lost my love for the game. I was just tired of playing. I was just flat, physically, mentally and quite a few other factors. I became a dad at the same time. A lot of things were happening then. I was taking the pressure with the cricket, so there was just a lot that was going on in my life and I felt like I needed to breathe a little bit. I wouldn't say I lost the love for the game. I  think that showed. I just love playing."

One key contrast between the two best batsmen in their respective sides has been how quickly they have made their runs. De Villiers is humming along, in his century at Port Elizabeth to the rollicking background noise of the brass band, at a strike rate of more than 70 in the series. He can take the game away from you before you know it.

Smith is scoring at about 40 runs per 100 balls, which reflects a general decrease in his rate over recent years as Australia's talisman.

And despite all he has achieved across the format, de Villiers still feels he has something to prove.

"I came into this series and the previous one against India feeling like I need to play again, to make sure I keep my spot in the team," he said.

"I haven't played for a while and you're always just a couple of innings away from people starting to say, 'Is he still good enough?'. So those kind of things were on my mind.

"I was very motivated to prove to people I could still play the game, even though I've been away for a while. It was hard toil over the last six to eight months, making sure I get to this kind of form again. I'm very happy it showed up."

Now that de Villiers has laid down the gauntlet, Smith will want to have a greater impact himself on the final two matches at Newlands and the Wanderers.

There are two out-of-this-world batsmen here and, so far anyway, only one of them is playing out-of-this-world cricket.