AB de Villiers is the most important South African batsman of the past 20 years, arguably ever, because of how he played the game and what he achieved, writes RYAN VREDE.
To me, De Villiers is a creative first, and his batsmanship is an expression of a potent creative gift.
Creativity is defined as the ability to transcend traditional ideas, rules, patterns, relationships, or the like, and to create meaningful new ideas, forms, methods, interpretations, etc; originality, progressiveness, or imagination.
De Villiers embodied this, yet did so in ways few in the game’s history have been able to match. Let me explain.
Broadly speaking, there are three types of elite athletes. There are those who have mastered their code and are able to consistently exhibit that mastery, which is rooted in conventional methods of playing the game. They usually dominate their codes for extended periods of time because they’ve figured out how to replicate their brilliance again and again. Think Roger Federer.
Secondly, there are those who play the game in unconventional ways and do so with relative success, but mastery usually eludes them because they don’t have all of the technical, physical or mental tools to breathe life into the pictures they see in their minds. Chris Gayle is one such athlete.
Then there are those who are a hybrid of the two. They have mastered the game, in part because they have a firm conventional grounding, but there’s a creative dimension they engage which translates to you and me as the experience of watching something truly special.
These athletes are able to paint between the lines if required, but they are equally capable of crafting beautiful art that is informed by convention but not imprisoned by it.
AB de Villiers is this. And he is ours. We must never underestimate how special this is. It is so because these athletes are extremely rare.
I’ve seen De Villiers referred to as a once-in-a-generation player. In a South African context, even this may be wrong. The closest thing to him in this generation of players was Herschelle Gibbs. Yet Gibbs’ talent, while appreciable, never soared in the way De Villiers’ did.
This is seen in their statistical returns, where De Villiers dwarfs Gibbs in all key metrics. Our memories also testify to this. I recall a clutch of brilliant Gibbs innings. He was a really good player, one whose disregard for convention made him enthralling to watch. Yet I remember De Villiers as being a great player, one who played too many great innings to isolate a clutch of them in my memory.
This differentiation is significant because it speaks to Gibbs’ limitations when compared to De Villiers in this context. Indeed, no South Africa batsman does. Critically, there are only a handful in the world from De Villiers’ generation of players who do.
One of those is Virat Kohli. So it was telling that the superstar India batsman referred to De Villiers as “… the best player of our times”. He later ended one of his Instagram posts with GOAT (greatest of all time). This is a weighty compliment from one of the modern era’s most gifted batters.
England’s Jos Buttler, another whose talent soars in white-ball cricket, declared that he would “turn on the TV just to watch you bat”. Australia’s Glenn Maxwell proclaimed that De Villiers has “changed cricket forever”.
Maxwell refers to De Villiers’ depth of creativity, which expressed itself in ways that made it aspirational. He speaks to the idea that De Villiers has forged a new normal.
I’ve seen De Villiers’ legacy at ground level. Most of the generation of cricketers at my club grew up wanting to play like Jacques Kallis. The kids there now have an appreciation for Kallis, but most of them don’t want to play like him. They’ve grown up on a diet of seeing De Villiers fearlessly sweeping and scooping fast bowlers or hitting them back over their heads with a horizontal bat, or opening the face and bottom hand bullying a ball over backward-point.
It doesn’t matter that most of them won’t be able to replicate this sorcery. It only matters that De Villiers is their reference point for how the game could be, and to some, should be played. It matters because creativity drives innovation and innovation opens the door to unexplored frontiers. It matters because there is a South African kid somewhere right now who will benchmark De Villiers but have the talent and temperament to one day explore what is on the other side of that benchmark. They will do that with a Proteas shirt on their back.
I’ve seen the way De Villiers played characterised as fearless. This is not true. No professional athlete is fearless. However, there are those who are able to summon the boldness to follow and consistently execute an unconventional course of action despite their fears. These are the ones we remember as being truly special.
Statistically, De Villiers doesn’t feature in the game’s top 10 run-scorers in any format. Yet a strong argument can be made that he is more memorable than any of those who do. This is because of how he played the game, the impact that had on those of us who watched it, and those kids who grew up trying to emulate him. Indeed, he forced those of us who were schooled in the art and science of batting according to the game’s conservative conventions to grow our games to include a wider repertoire of strokes.
I’m certain his impact in this context has reached every corner of the cricket-playing globe, but for the purposes of this piece, it is pertinent that I celebrate De Villiers in a purely South African context.
His contribution to our game can’t be measured in runs. Indeed it can’t be measured. It can only be seen in the way millions of South African youngsters play the game. When executed well, it is beautiful and unashamedly bold. It changes the game for their team and helps them win in ways that make memories.
No, there is no traditional metric by which to assess De Villiers’ impact. There is and will never be a means to measure the feeling it stirs when you watch a batsman “do an AB”.