AB de Villiers is a very modern cricketer – an athletic fielder, an occasional but
extremely capable wicketkeeper, a captain, and a very versatile batsman with a
reputation firmly established across all formats of the game. He averages more
than 50 in both Test cricket and one-day internationals, something only his
South Africa teammate Hashim Amla can also claim to have done, and is a star
of the Twenty20 format, especially the Indian Premier League. There is perhaps
no better finisher in limited-overs cricket today.
Like Kevin Pietersen he has the ability to play ridiculous shots and get away
with it, making something very difficult look beguilingly simple. On that basis
alone, he stands out as something special. Twenty20 has influenced all types of
one-day cricket and made them very different from how they used to be. No
target is seemingly beyond reach these days and de Villiers has made a speciality
of remaining cool when faced with an improbably stiff run-chase. His talent for
winning one-day internationals has blossomed in parallel with the experience he
has gained playing in the IPL, to the point where a successful South Africa chase
that does not involve de Villiers seeing them across the line has become a rarity.
He seems to know where the ball is going to be bowled almost before the
bowler does and by dancing around the crease on lightning quick feet he is able
to get himself into position to manufacture the most amazing shots. He scoops
deliveries over his left shoulder for six, levers near-yorkers over the extra cover
boundary, and plays all manner of shots down the ground. Excelling during his
schooldays at a variety of sports such as tennis, rugby, hockey and golf probably
helped him hone his phenomenal hand-eye coordination and speed. He runs like
the wind between the wickets.
Not that he did much running during a one-day international against West
Indies in January 2015 in the helpfully high-altitude conditions of Johannesburg.
Persuaded to promote himself to number 3 after South Africa’s first wicket fell
at 247 in the 39th over, de Villiers unleashed the fiercest assault ever seen in an
international match, racing to 50 off 16 balls and his hundred off 31, thus slicing
five balls off the previous record for a century. By the time he was out in the
final over, he had plundered 149 off just 44 balls, 16 of which he hit for six.
Truly stupendous stuff
It perhaps says something about the modern game that some of his most
extraordinary performances have come in ODIs and Twenty20. England’s
followers possibly do not need reminding of the innings he played against their
side at the World Twenty20 in Chittagong in 2014, in a game England needed to
win to stay in the tournament. They weren’t doing too badly until de Villiers
went into overdrive and the last four overs of the innings saw South Africa’s
total boosted by 68: after a relatively sedate start he finished with 69 off 28 balls.
In similar but even more spectacular vein were a couple of efforts for Royal
Challengers Bangalore in the IPL at the sharp end of run-chases. Both involved
him going toe-to-toe with Dale Steyn, so often a friend in South African colours
but on these occasions very much the foe, and, as Steyn showed in some of the
games at the World Twenty20 in 2014, one of the most difficult bowlers in the
world to score off. In 2012, when Steyn was playing for Deccan Chargers, de
Villiers faced him for the 18th over of the innings with 39 needed off three
overs, surely a tall order for anyone. Not for de Villiers: with some outrageous
improvisations, he took 23 off the over, which included a yorker-length ball
drilled over extra cover for six. He then took 14 off the first three balls of the
next over, so Bangalore actually ended up winning with seven balls to spare.
Two years later, with Steyn now playing for Sunrisers Hyderabad, de Villiers
took Bangalore home with an unbeaten 89 off 41 balls, of which 22 came off the
penultimate over bowled by Steyn by means of three sixes and a four. Possibly
de Villiers knows Steyn’s game too well.
What is impressive is that he plays a quite different game for South Africa in
Tests, where he generally bats in the middle order at a more measured rate.
Whereas someone like Pietersen often seemed to bring his one-day approach
into the Test arena, de Villiers takes fewer calculated risks in the five-day game
and is usually happy to wait for the bad balls to come along, and then put them
away with unerring precision. Mind you, he has been known to step on the gas,
as he did at Perth in 2012 when after a careful start he added 98 in a session
against a flagging Australia attack. He was briefly the holder of the record score
for South Africa with the 278 he made against Pakistan at Abu Dhabi in 2010;
two years later Amla displaced him with a triple century against England.
His versatility and adaptability have been greatly to South Africa’s
advantage. In his early days as a Test player, he kept wicket and opened the
batting alongside Graeme Smith, and although he did reasonably well it was a lot
to ask, and did not seem to be making best use of his talents. He dropped down
the order where his capacity to tailor his game according to the situation stood
out. He became the regular keeper in ODIs and then, following Mark Boucher’s
cruel injury during the tour of England in 2012, took up the gloves again in the
Test side for the best part of two years, during which his batting hardly suffered
from the imposition. In 2012, he became captain of the 50-overs side and,
briefly, the 20-overs side as well.
By the age of 30 de Villiers had 40 international hundreds to his name and it
seems that in the years ahead there is not much that he will not be able to do,
provided he stays as wonderfully grounded as he has so far. It is hard to imagine
that there are not plenty more great days ahead.