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AB de Villiers holds off Australian aggression but SA flinch first

AB de Villiers waged a lone battle while the rest crumbled
AB de Villiers waged a lone battle while the rest crumbled © Getty
You didn't have to be out on the field to feel that the climate of South Africa's Test summer had changed. Up in the stands at the Umgeni End, a group of outspoken Australian supporters were making their South African hosts uncomfortable. Far from home, their comments boomed out towards the pitch. They weren't witty and some were even childish, but many of the South Africans around them seemed to shrink in the face of such brashness. It didn't help that the locals were not exactly in an overwhelming majority at a largely empty Kingsmead. As each South African wicket fell, the vocal Australians grew noisier.
Needless to say, the state of affairs in the stands was a reflection of what was happening out on the pitch. South Africa's opening batsmen seemed to be expecting it, and took the approach of turning their backs whenever Mitchell Starc directed his voice towards them after a delivery, as they pretended to mark out their guards yet again. When AB de Villiers walked to the crease, the first person to speak to him was not his batting partner, but David Warner. "It was quite nice today," de Villiers later said of Australia's verbal interactions. "They were very friendly... compared to last time."
Australia's intent was registered before the series even started. They requested that the stump microphones be turned down in between deliveries. While they are used to this happening automatically back home, it is not always the case in South Africa - during the recent India series, the players' comments on the field were regularly audible to television viewers.
As if to test the system and ensure that the broadcasters were obliging their request - which is in line with ICC guidelines - Australia's players spoke loudly about competing sponsors before the first over of South Africa's innings. "It wasn't a protest... it was a great opportunity to give our sponsors a bit of a plug," Mitchell Marsh said smugly afterwards.
While India have rarely represented an intimidating prospect to South Africa on home soil, the case is different with Australia. The Proteas knew that Australia would be in their face, but they still flinched first.
It wasn't just the verbal battle that appeared to unsettle them. As de Villiers said, "we expect some verbal stuff when you are playing cricket. It gets the juices flowing. Also from the other side, we get stuck in and try and unsettle some of the batters." But no other team in world cricket backs up their so-called 'mental disintegration' with bowling aggression on such a regular basis as Australia.
South Africa's batsmen are used to facing high speeds, given the pace in their own attack. But on Friday (March 2), Australia pushed the speed gun further than even the Proteas are accustomed to. One delivery from Pat Cummins was clocked at 152 km/h. The Australian pace trio rarely fell below 140. The relentlessness could only have played a role in dismissals that often appeared soft.
Aiden Markram was comfortable getting onto the front foot early on, but hopped as he played a Cummins delivery that was directed at his body and fended tamely to Cameron Bancroft at short leg, who had supposedly told the batsman of his impending fate moments before. As good as Starc's deliveries were to induce his first three dismissals, both Theunis de Bruyn and Vernon Philander were playing from the crease, their hesitation in the face of such sustained aggression plain to see. Keshav Maharaj and Kagiso Rabada were on their heels when they were sent on their way by Josh Hazlewood and Starc. Maharaj's splattered stumps represented an apt image of the South African situation.
Only one of South Africa's batsmen could stand up to the challenge.
"I felt comfortable with the aggression out there," de Villiers said at the press conference afterwards, although he looked unusually drawn from the experience. "Especially our top seven have faced these kinds of things before many times. We prepared that way. We have faced that many times before. It's just no excuse. We've seen it before and we just didn't execute well."
South Africa have faced up to even more intimidating environments before and prevailed. They have done it, in fact, on their last three trips to Australia, where they have found themselves up against the Australian team, the crowds, and the local media.
But what is becoming clear is that there is a subtle but crucial mental difference between touring Australia and hosting them. The aggression pervades, but when South Africa go to Australia there is almost a sense that there is nothing to lose. Since touring Australia is meant to represent the ultimate challenge, there are fewer expectations than when South Africa face the same opposition at home. In South Africa, the pressure of withholding both Australia's onslaught and the expectations of their own supporters seem to be too much for them.
They are not out of the series yet, of course. Four years ago they picked themselves up after being floored by Mitchell Johnson at Centurion to win in Port Elizabeth, and there is no doubt that the quality within their side measures up to Australia. But having flinched first against an Australia side that love nothing more than to sense the opposition's fear, the rest of the Proteas will need to tap into de Villiers' fearlessness if they are to avoid another harrowing series defeat to Australia on home turf.

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