AB de Villiers has done just about everything there is to do on a cricket field. He batted at every spot from No. 1 to No. 8 before establishing himself at No. 4. Once there, he broke the South African record for the highest individual Test score; he started off as the perfect prowler at backward point and went on to keep wicket in limited-overs cricket. He has even bowled, two overs in ODIs, 33 in Tests, and claimed two wickets. de Villiers has done it all, but he has never captained a team. At least, not yet.
On October 13, in Cape Town, that will change. de Villiers will lead South Africa in a Twenty20 against Australia, and so will begin a new era for South African cricket. “It’s unknown territory for me but I believe I can do the job,” de Villiers told ESPNcricinfo. “I think I was the captain of a schools team once, but I never captained at provincial or franchise level. It was a bit of a surprise when the national captaincy came my way.”
For many, it was not unexpected. de Villiers was an automatic choice. He epitomises the South African sportsman: as talented as he is hardworking, as overflowing with optimism as he is gritty on the field, and as idolised as a hero as he is approachable. Most of all, it’s his attribute of being the ultimate team man that makes him ideal captaincy material.
He has always come across as a service-before-self individual. We could see it when he played in his second Test, against England in 2004, and saved the game with a half-century while batting at No. 8. We would see it in his resolute 174 that helped South Africa win the Headingley Test, and later their first series in England since readmission, and in Perth later that year, when his century formed the backbone of South Africa’s record second-innings chase of 414. Luckily for de Villiers, his stars have aligned in such a way that his individual performances have coincided with significant achievements for the national team.
It’s only the latter that the man himself cares about, though. “I’m not the kind of guy who cares how many hundreds I’ve scored. My personal goals have always and will always take a backseat to the team.” If there is one thing de Villiers wants to characterise his captaincy, it’s that: no individualism, everything for the collective.
“I want the guys to play for the team, and for there to be no selfishness. Everything must be sacrificed for the team; they will have to put their own performances aside. But that doesn’t mean that the individual records must suffer. For some guys, playing for the team will mean achieving more personally,” de Villiers said, evidently speaking from personal experience.
His seemingly almost communist-like attitude to cricket starts with himself. “I am prepared to do anything to make this work,” he said. “Even if it means that I will average less with the bat or whether it means I will keep or not keep.”
His keeping has been the subject of much debate since Mark Boucher was dropped from the one-day side last year. It was initially a concern that de Villiers would not be able to handle the dual role. Although his batting average was higher when he donned the gloves than when he didn’t, and the extra job seemed to have a positive effect on his mindset, a persistent back problem meant that he was only able to keep wicket in three of the five World Cup games he played this year. Now with the additional responsibility of captaincy, there is renewed concern that de Villiers should not be overburdened, physically and mentally.
He has made a full recovery from the back trouble, and was able to play as a wicketkeeper-batsman for the entire fourth season of the IPL for the Royal Challengers Bangalore. His coach at the franchise, Ray Jennings favours de Villiers taking on the the three tasks: “He is a keeper who is very involved in the game, and so when he is playing in that role, it gives him a good position to run the team from.”
Jennings wanted de Villiers as his captain for Bangalore, in fact, and even spoke to him when South Africa were playing Pakistan in the UAE in November last year. “I thought he had the right leadership qualities, and I didn’t really know Dan [Vettori] very well, so my heart wanted a South African. Dan ended up being superb, and AB acted as a captain in the side even though he wasn’t the captain.”
Jennings said de Villiers’ influence and work ethic were key to the team’s success. “His attitude as a player is contagious. He has a superb value system and work ethic, and younger players responded well to him.”
Fortunately for South Africa, de Villiers plans to stick to the basics that made him the player he is now. “I will still be myself. I don’t want to change too much, but I hope to discover something special in my captaincy.”
That something special will come from being different to his predecessors – Graeme Smith, who stepped down as the one-day captain after the 2011 World Cup, and Johan Botha, who was replaced by de Villiers as the Twenty20 captain – while still working with them. Smith has made himself available for the Twenty20 and one-day teams, and remains captain of the Test team, where de Villiers is his deputy.
There is a school of thought that captaining a side that includes an ex-captain is difficult, particularly if that man is Smith, an authoritative figure on his own. Not so, said de Villiers. “I wouldn’t want it any other way. I am going to work closely with Graeme. He is someone that I can fall back on.”
The relationship with Botha appears to be more complicated, because Botha did not relinquish the captaincy, but de Villiers said there are no hard feelings. “Johan actually SMS-ed me when the announcement was made, said congratulations, and told me he will always be around if I need him.” The absence of malice from either former captain should help allow de Villiers the space to develop his own style of leadership. “It would be stupid to copy any other captain,” he said.
He also has a new coach to work under – Gary Kirsten, who played alongside Smith and Jacques Kallis, but is a childhood hero to de Villiers.
“I first met Gary with a few of the older guys in the team, but I never played with him,” de Villiers said. “I got to know him a little better when he was in Pretoria in 2005. He gave me a call to talk about my batting, and we met and he gave me some throwdowns.”
de Villiers said he was “very happy” when Kirsten was named coach because “he has his heart in it”. Much like de Villiers himself.
Although he has dabbled in a musical career and is a talented golfer and tennis player, it’s on the cricket field that he wants to do South Africa proud. Not so much as star batsman, agile wicketkeeper or courageous captain, but as a member of a winning team. “I am in love with my country and I want to win major series and tournaments for it.”
Source: ESPN CricInfo – June 20, 2011 / FIRDOSE MOONDA