De Villiers turns the match

A wonderful innings of 97 by AB de Villiers on the third day has made New Zealand’s task of batting last on a difficult Centurion pitch all the more difficult. After a poor start to the innings, de Villiers’s knock turned the momentum in South Africa’s favour after he came to the crease in a slightly perilous situation. After the New Zealanders bowled brilliantly throughout the first two sessions, he took advantage when the bowlers started to visibly tire later in the day and blasted his way through to the nineties after taking his time in reaching his 50. Jacques Kallis also played a vital role with his patient 62, and thanks mostly to these two batsmen the home side head into tomorrow’s fourth day with a slight advantage in what has been a fascinating contest.

However, resuming on 4-0, the South Africa’s day could not have started in much worse fashion than it did. In the third over of the day, an excellent delivery from Chris Martin caught Graeme Smith in his crease, giving the umpire an easy decision in sending the South African captain back to the dressing room for just 7, with the score at 8-1. That brought Boeta Dippenaar to the crease and he started positively, albeit fortuitously. He hit two consecutive fours, one in the air between slips and gully and one inside edge just past his stumps.

At the other end Herschelle Gibbs had no such luck. The struggling opener had managed just two when he got a thick outside edge on an excellent ball from James Franklin and gave Scott Styris some catching practice at second slip. The wicket reduced the score to 19-2, a deserved reward for what had been a superb display of bowling from the New Zealanders.

It got even better for New Zealand not long afterwards when Dippenaar’s luck ran out with the score on 42, edging a ball from yesterday’s centurion Jacob Oram to first slip where the safe hands of Stephen Fleming were waiting and comfortably took a difficult low catch. The visitors had said it was the plan to take three wickets before the deficit of 51 was erased, and with this wicket that aim was accomplished.

The early wickets left Jacques Kallis and Ashwell Prince with the task of batting through to lunch and then getting the innings going again. They survived the first aim, limping through to lunch at 63-3. The session had produced just 59 runs, with three crucial wickets. The second aim though was not able to be achieved before Ashwell Prince fell, his wicket falling to Franklin with an edge through to Brendon McCullum soon after the break for 11. This left the South Africans at 73-4 and in no small amount of trouble, with a lead of just 22 runs.

De Villiers walked out to join Kallis in an absolutely crucial partnership. And they didn’t let their team down. Starting cautiously, defending the frequent good balls and taking advantage of the few poor balls offered by the New Zealanders by playing attacking strokes and finding the boundary. Fours were few and far between in the morning session, but in the middle of the afternoon session the drought began to break. The introduction of Daniel Vettori to the attack on an unresponsive pitch seemed to bring a change in approach by the two batsmen. Kallis brought up his half-century and the partnership reached the same mark not long afterwards, while de Villiers was flamboyant at times in his support. Although the New Zealanders soon restricted the run rate again, neither batsman looked particularly in danger of being dismissed.

But then Stephen Fleming threw the ball to Scott Styris. With just his third ball, Styris lured Kallis into a mistimed pull shot which went high in the air and was comfortably caught by Vettori at deep fine leg. The wicket was a crucial breakthrough and with the lead still under a hundred 140-5 was a much more pleasant sight for New Zealand supporters than 140-4, especially with one of the world’s best batsmen out.

De Villiers continued the good work at the other end, making his way through to a half-century. And his new partner Mark Boucher was hardly a spectator, joining in the brisk run-scoring in a quick half-century partnership before falling for 21. A thick inside edge onto his leg stump gave Kyle Mills a well-deserved first wicket and reduced the score to 194-6. It was a much shorter wait for the next wicket, as Shaun Pollock fell for 10 after an eleven run partnership, given out LBW to Vettori.

With the score at 205-7, it was looking as though New Zealand would be able to get South Africa out for 250 or less and in doing so give themselves a target on a difficult pitch of no more than 200 in the fourth innings. But de Villiers and Nicky Boje had other ideas. In an explosive partnership, the two took to the New Zealand bowlers in brutal fashion, hitting boundaries all around the ground in a partnership which progressed at nearly a run a ball. The previously subdued Centurion crowd were brought to life as the total soared and the new ball disappeared all over the outfield, making the stands seem a lot more populated than they actually were.

The attacking batting put the bowlers off their line and length, making the runs even easier to come by. De Villiers moved through from 50 to the nineties in half as long as it had taken him to score his first fifty. Boje did his bit too, scoring at a good rate and finding the boundary regularly in an excellent supporting role.

The crowd sat on the edge of their seats as de Villiers approached a century on his home ground. But after an absorbing battle of patience against Oram, he played a loose shot at one and was caught at cover for 97. The crowd sat in stunned and disappointed silence. But the scoreboard showed the impact he had had on the match. Arriving at the crease with the score at 73-4, he left at 270-8 with a lead of 219.

Next over Stephen Fleming did it again. Giving the ball to Nathan Astle resulted in the wicket of Boje. A ball after being cut for four, Astle bowled one slightly closer to the batsman and the result was a thin edge and a long walk for Boje.

Dale Steyn and Makhaya Ntini survived the remainder of the day, with Steyn responding to five excellent balls from Oram with an aggressive cover drive for four off the last ball of the day.

South Africa finished on 280-9 with a lead of 229, the match still very evenly poised. But New Zealand will have left the field feeling some disappointment with their last session, and perhaps feeling that the match may have just slipped from their grasp after two and a half days of exceptional cricket. Tomorrow, like the first three days so far, will be a fascinating day of cricket.

South Africa 276
Boeta Dippenaar 52, Jacques Kallis 38
Kyle Mills 4-43, James Franklin 4-75

New Zealand 327
Jacob Oram 133, Daniel Vettori 81
Makhaya Ntini 5-94, Shaun Pollock 2-45

South Africa 280-9
AB de Villiers 97, Jacques Kallis 62
Jacob Oram 2-46, James Franklin 2-60

South Africa lead by 229 runs.

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