What looked so easy at his peak, got him into trouble initially, as he battled to understand his value to the national team, and sussing out the moment to go from conservative control to outrageous dominance.
One, two, three. Reverse sweeps, for four, to go from 89 to 101. In a Test match, in a series decider, in Australia.
Who the hell does that? AB de Villiers did, in Perth, against off-spinner Nathan Lyon in 2012. As illustrations of dominance on a cricket field go, they don’t come much better.
But that summed up the player and batsman De Villiers had become. ‘Peak AB’ left you gasping, shaking your head – ‘AB de Silliers’ someone somewhere tweeted. “He starts off from the perspective that every ball is worth six runs and works his way down, for most other players, it’s a start at zero and work your way up,” Barry Richards told me a few years back.
Impossible wasn’t in the De Villiers vocabulary when it came to batting – nothing was impossible. “Honestly, you can’t make 100 from 30 balls, it’s not right,” mused Rilee Rossouw, in the aftermath of the world record De Villiers set at the Wanderers three years ago.
But, like any sportsman, any cricketer, it took De Villiers a while to figure his game. What looked so easy at his peak, got him into trouble initially, as he battled to understand his value to the national team, and sussing out the moment to go from conservative control to outrageous dominance.
A turning point was Lord’s in 2008 in De Villiers’ 41st Test. De Villiers made 42 in the first innings of that match, getting himself out at a crucial stage when he casually flicked a delivery from Monty Panesar to midwicket.
His captain, Graeme Smith, and the Proteas coach at the time, Mickey Arthur, were furious. They let De Villiers have it in front of the rest of the team in the post-day dressing room debrief. De Villiers didn’t take kindly to that dressing down.
He had a very public sulk on the dressing room balcony later in that match – burying himself in a Jeffrey Archer novel – as his teammates saved the game. Apparently there wasn’t much chat between him and the team leadership before the next Test at Headingley. He let his bat talk, making a magnificent 174 in an intense atmosphere as SA claimed a series lead.
De Villiers was central to the success South Africa had between 2008 and 2013, when the Proteas ascended to the top of the rankings in the Test arena.
But De Villiers was also the first truly great all-format player able to manipulate his talents in order to be successful in T20s, ODIs and Test matches. He could dominate like he did in Perth, crush it as he did at the Wanderers in 2015 or block as he did in Adelaide in 2012.
The great ones adapt, and De Villiers did so at the most vital moments.
De Villiers certainly slots into the very top bracket of the great batsmen this country has produced. Ali Bacher, explained that as far as he was concerned what was once a duet – Graeme Pollock and Richards – is now a trio, that must include De Villiers as among the great batsmen to have come from this country. Jacques Kallis would be there too, but would readily give up his spot in a top three of great South African batsmen.
Where De Villiers stands apart from Pollock, Richards and even Kallis is his adaptability, not just across formats, but in foreign conditions too – he’s made hundreds from India to Australia and against some of the very best bowlers too.
He rose to become a virtual deity in India where cricket is more than a sport. They – and the Titans – will now get to see De Villiers, the green and gold of the Proteas is in his past.
Four hundred and twenty international matches, 20 014 runs, 463 catches, 17 stumpings and nine wickets. Those are hefty numbers in anyone’s book, but De Villiers was about so much more than just statistics.
He put bums in seats (mostly), drew eyes to the television – and more lately laptops, tablets and smartphones – and he dominated. A 21st century cricketer like no other. A hat-trick of reverse sweeps to go to a Test hundred – who does that?
A look at AB’s top 10 innings – see www.iol.co.za