While cricket lovers gear up to watch AB de Villiers in Test whites for the first time since January 2016, they may be interested, and anxious, to hear that his long-standing back problem is not entirely a thing of the past. De Villiers was withdrawn from the South African Invitation XI to play the touring Zimbabweans in Paarl earlier this week after "struggling with lower back stiffness," according to a CSA press release, after the Ram Slam and took a few days off to holiday with his wife and two young sons.
Though de Villiers is available for selection for the Boxing Day Test, he admitted his workload will need to monitored. "It's not really a big problem. It's a little niggle, something I have had for the last eight or nine years and something I have to manage with my workload," de Villiers said. "I had a few intense games in the last few months and I started feeling it again towards the end of the Ram Slam finals. There's nothing you can do. It's a little tweak. I was honest with the convener and a few guys and asked them for a few days off. The doctor also treated me and suggested I take a few days off. It's simple as that. I needed a bit of rest and I feel fit and ready to go again."
De Villiers' absence from the practice match means he has only played one first-class game since his last Test, for his domestic franchise, Titans. He has, however, been practicing against the red ball since before he reaffirmed his commitment to South African cricket in late August. He also played the three ODIs and two T20Is against Bangladesh in September and seven of Titans' 12 twenty-over games, including the semi-final and final, and believes he is adequately prepared for the rigours of Test cricket.
"I started off end of July facing red balls at the University of Pretoria, getting some technical stuff sorted out and I feel more ready than ever to take it on. I have been working for the last six months to get ready for this," de Villiers said. "It's always been my theory that there's not a massive difference between the formats. It's a mindset thing; it's a little tweak here and there. Obviously you've got to have a bit more patience with the red ball. But you've still got to play cricket, you play cricket strokes, it's not like all of a sudden you have to play rugby out there. It's still cricket and as long as you respect the conditions, sum up what's going on in the match situation, you can make it work."
Adjusting to conditions will be crucial to everyone involved in the Boxing Day Test, and not just de Villiers, because it is the first four-day day-night Test and no one really knows how it will play out. While it is now accepted wisdom that the pink ball swings more at twilight, it may move even more if the Test strip is anything like the one South Africa practiced on, on Friday evening. De Villiers reported that between 19:30 and 20:00 (around sunset), things became "really tough," and he hopes it won't be quite as difficult for the main occasion.
"It was one of the wickets next to the main wicket we are going to play on - I hope it's not that spicy - because it was moving around. Vernon [Philander] is obviously the master of moving the ball around, KG [Kagiso Rabada] moving it around and shaping it in, all of that stuff. It was a great way to prepare. I don't think it can get much harder than that."
That kind of talk will only scare Zimbabwe, whose players were downed by an SA Invitation XI that included only four players with franchise experience, even more. For a team that rarely plays Test cricket, never mind under lights in a shortened format, this match will be a complete test of ability. And if that's not enough for Zimbabwe to think about, they also have a freshly motivated and rested de Villiers to contend with.
"I (still) want to contribute. I want to play knocks and have my say in the field, my experience, take some catches in order for us to win games of cricket," de Villiers said. "Obviously we'd like to be No.1 in the world, we are not far away We know if we win a few series in the next two or three months against very tough opposition we can achieve that. That will be nice - to be that No.1 team in the world again and to maintain it for a few years."
After the one-off Test against Zimbabwe, South Africa get into the heart of their summer with three Tests against India in January 2018, followed by four against Australia in March. For South Africa to ovetake India at No.1, they will need to beat Zimbabwe, clean-sweep India 3-0 and beat Australia by a margin of at least two Tests, and de Villiers knows none of it, particularly the India series, will be easy.
"They've played a lot better over the last few series we've played here compared to the 90s. They are a team that's young and determined. We know all about Virat Kohli, how determined he is as captain; he'll definitely come here trying to win and to make history," de Villiers said. "It will be a great challenge."