• Celebrating AB de Villiers

    AB de Villiers is the cover feature in the current issue on sale of SA Cricket magazine. GARY LEMKE had this to say before the start of the England series.

    Where does one start when attempting to put AB de Villiers’ Test career into perspective? Well, for these purposes, we ought to airbrush from the discussion the 9 570 runs he’s scored for South Africa in ODIs and T20Is and concentrate on the nearly 8 000 that is the next Test milestone to be ticked off when England tour the Republic this summer.

    The beginning, in a Test context, was as a 20-year-old rookie who had forced himself into the Proteas side to play England in the first Test at Port Elizabeth. Alongside him making his debut was one Dale Steyn, who opened his own career with 2-117 in the first innings before bowling the opposition captain Michael Vaughan with an absolute jaffer in the second innings. But this is about one of the most phenomenal all-rounders – batsman, fielder, wicketkeeper, leader – rather than one of the great fast bowlers of any era.

    ‘I was at my ex-girlfriend’s house having dinner when I got the call,’ he recalled. ‘I was so excited that I immediately called my parents and understandably they were also over the moon about the news. I could not sleep that night and it was only the following day that the magnitude of what had happened sunk in.
    I immediately went down to the nets for a practice and I wanted to do all I could to be as prepared as possible.’

    The following day, 11 years ago, De Villiers opened with Graeme Smith but that partnership lasted two balls. Smith was out for a duck and De Villiers was joined by Jacques Rudolph. The first 11 balls De Villiers faced in his Test career – bowled by Matthew Hoggard and Steve Harmison – were dots, before the nerves were settled and this gifted South African started to show why he’d been elevated to the national side. The score was taken to 63 before ‘Freddie’ Flintoff got the young man on debut, 28 off 47 balls after 81 minutes at the crease.

    And so the story started.

    He scored his first century in the fifth Test on that England tour, striking 92 and 109 at Centurion, as he won his first Man of the  Match award. In the second innings, he and Jacques Kallis came together at 29-2 and when De Villiers departed the partnership had reached 227. They scored at a rate of 4.29 to the over – comfortably the quickest clip of the match, and the young prince had scored his runs marginally faster than the king. However, simply spending so much time in the middle, learning from the great man at the other end, will have been invaluable to De Villiers’ early development, just as it was to be for Hashim Amla in his long partnerships with Kallis.

    As De Villiers settled into his career, his reputation preceded him. You’ve heard them: a scratch golfer who could have turned pro, a tennis talent who could have played on the ATP Tour, a swimmer who still holds national schools records, flyhalf for the Bulls U18 side, U19 national badminton champion and so it goes.

    Yet cricket is where the De Villiers talent show stopped and the past decade and a bit has been one continuous highlights reel. Sport in general, and cricket in particular, puts great emphasis on statistics, but somehow, with the Proteas superhero, stats don’t do his career justice.

    Two Test innings stood out more than the others in the young De Villiers’ mind. ‘The double hundred against India in the subcontinent was very special as it helped us to win the second Test and take an unassailable lead in the three-Test series.’

    That was in Ahmedabad in 2008 when Steyn took 5-23 as India were routed for 76. And no, it wasn’t the kind of pitch we saw in the recent series in India where the Proteas lost their proud away Test record. When South Africa batted they made 494-7 dec, with De Villiers getting 217 not out and again outscoring Kallis in a 256-run partnership. ‘Another favourite Test innings was very special as well … the match-winning 174 at Headingley against England to win the series [also in 2008, where he and Ashwell Prince put on 212 for the fifth wicket].’

    Since then it’s become a procession of runs, victories and hundreds, 21 in all, and counting.

    There are all the other elements – apart from the fact he has also been a wicketkeeper smart enough to be the only Test cricketer in history to take 10 dismissals behind the stumps and make a century in the same match – that make him an individual who is impossible to pigeonhole.

    Probably the most impressive aspect, and one which has helped give him so much success, is the time he has when he’s at the crease. Where others literally have a split second to get into line, make a decision as to what shot to play, it seems on occasion that De Villiers has half an hour at his disposal. He seems to have the brain of Iron Man, a computer analysing the angles, speed, bounce and direction before he presents his bat. It is a gift, admittedly one that he has worked on tirelessly to perfect, but there is AB de Villiers and then there’s the rest.

    If anything, there are times at the crease in a Test career that sees him average over 51, when he appears to be the only person capable of dismissing himself. An inventive, instinctive, bullying sort of batsman, like Kevin Pietersen in full flight, but only better.

    Admittedly, it didn’t quite pan out like that in this past series in India, where South Africa were comfortably beaten in the Tests. In reality, they ought to have been 3-0 down after three, with rain spoiling the game in Bengaluru, where India were 80-0 in reply to South Africa’s 214 all out.

    In Mohali, the Proteas scored 184 and 109 in losing by 108 runs inside three days. De Villiers contributed 79 runs to the losing cause – the highest in the team. In Bengaluru he again top-scored with 85 of the 214 runs, with Dean Elgar’s 38 being next best. And at Nagpur, where the Proteas were again beaten inside three days by 124 runs after posting 79 and 185, De Villiers suffered two rare failures.

    The series defeat again showed the over-reliance the Proteas have on the seniors in De Villiers, Amla and Du Plessis and when they fail the rot sets in. It was noticeable on the poorly-prepared pitches in India where batting was a lottery, but there were many instances where one gets the impression the squad didn’t bring their A-game to India. The continued absence of Quinton de Kock in the Test side was glaring, while Amla’s captaincy left him open to criticism and questions.

    We all know how the movie has started and how it’s progressed, but we don’t yet know how it’s going to finish. England have arrived and they will have plenty of video analysis on how to target the best batsman in the world. Good luck to them.

    Another strength of De Villiers’ is his stamina, which has been astounding, and fatherhood hasn’t dimmed his ambition. Think back to the day he and Steyn made their debuts in the same match. De Villiers has since chalked up 102 Tests and Steyn 81 in taking over 400 Test wickets. His longevity and consistency is another sideshow to the freakishly super-human career that has been Abraham Benjamin de Villiers.

    Footnote: De Villiers passed 8 000 Test runs in the second Test at Newlands.

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    Gary Lemke