Martin Guptill may still have to work his way back into the New Zealand Test side despite his mammoth 180 not out in the fourth One-Day International against South Africa on Wednesday (March 1), with Mike Hesson, the coach, saying the opener was not yet in the Test frame. But AB de Villiers, the South Africa captain, was left in no doubt that the batsman was moving as well as he ever had.
“I’ve always rated him as a player. He’s had to work through a few things in his career so far and I was always hoping this day would never come,” smiled de Villiers after New Zealand had chased down a 280 target in just 45 overs on the back of Guptill’s knock to draw level in the five-match series. “He’s sort of figured out his game, playing it nice and late. It looks like he’s moving really well. I can sit here for a quite a bit of time and talk about the knock tonight, it was a very special innings. It’s difficult to set fields to some really good hitting. We maybe gave him a few boundary balls as well, we were a little bit soft here and there with some of the boundaries we gave him. But all in all, a fantastic knock and credit to him.”
De Villiers admitted to being a bit surprised by how the pitch played at Seddon Park in Hamilton, though he rated it as a ‘very good’ ODI surface. “It didn’t turn as much as I expected it to. I felt there was more turn very early on in the afternoon, which was weird because in the last game, it started turning in the evening. But all in all, the wicket played pretty well over the 100 overs and we were beaten by the better team.
“It was funny, the new ball was turning square but I tried the same when we were bowling and it wasn’t turning as much.”
The series finale will take place at Eden Park in Auckland on Saturday, and de Villiers said it would be good for South Africa to test themselves in a high-pressure game as part of their Champions Trophy preparations. “There is a big final to play with lots at stake. It’s obviously a big pressure game, and it will be great for us to come through a game like that, especially at Eden Park.”
This is also the venue of the World Cup 2015 semifinal between the two sides, where New Zealand triumphed in a thriller off the penultimate ball. The first time South Africa played on the ground since then was in the one-off Twenty20 International at the start of the tour, which they won by 78 runs. The fifth and final ODI will be their first 50-over match at the venue since that semifinal.
“It’s a great stadium to play cricket at, we won the T20 game there and it will be great to do the same in the ODI now and finish on a high,” said de Villiers. “I think we’ve played some fantastic cricket throughout the series. We haven’t hit our straps as we wanted to yet in both departments of the game, with bat and ball. Hopefully it will happen in this last game, and I’ve full faith in the boys to put it through. There’s no need to panic at all. I believe in the guys and I believe our top order is the best in the world.”
One of those who has under-performed to an extent in the ODIs so far is Imran Tahir, who has only four wickets at 45.50 and an economy rate of 5.87 after returns of 5 for 24 in the T20I. De Villiers put it down to New Zealand’s batsmen being more careful against the legspinner. “I think they are respecting him a bit more and playing him better. It happens when you have a match-winner in your team, the opposition tend to respect them,” he explained. “We also look at some of their bowlers and look after one or two of them and feel if we can get through that, we can dominate the rest of the bowlers. I think they’ve got a similar sort of game-plan against Immy.
“The Eden Park wicket is a little bit quicker. I know Immy likes to bowl on quicker wickets, where the spin happens quickly. Tonight’s wicket was pretty slow and even though you didn’t pick him, you could still play it off the surface. Most spinners enjoy wickets where it’s turning, but turning fast.”
One of the lighter moments of the fourth ODI came when de Villiers was batting, on his way to 72 not out off 59 balls, and the speakers at the ground suddenly blared out his own song ‘Maak Jou Drome Waar’, the hit single from his 2010 album.
“I was singing along. No one picked it up,” laughed the South African skipper. “I was actually playing a bit of air guitar on my bat as well. I was! And no one picked it up. I thought I’d be on the highlights package with my guitar play. I loved it, they’ve got to do it more often.”