South Africa’s A.B. de Villiers the ultimate all-rounder

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It was the eye of the storm: the Centurion Park pitch when Mitch Johnson delivered the 12-wicket haul later rated among the most hostile of recent times. But as Protea after Protea perished, one proved not only resistant to Johnson’s menace but a predator of it.

“It reminded me of when I was really young playing in the backyard with my [older] brothers. It felt like a stage that was set up where I shouldn’t be performing, and then I surprised one or two people,” the predator of Johnson’s high-velocity bowling, Villiers, told Fairfax Media. “That’s exactly what happened in the backyard with my brothers – they were really angry with me.”

While survival alone would have been enough to rile the older de Villiers boys, given A.B. was barely strong enough to hold the bat, let alone wield it, when it came to Centurion he had even better in store for Johnson. Two-thirds of the 68 runs Johnson conceded in the South Africa first innings came from the counter-attack of de Villiers, more than half of them in boundaries in an innings where his 91 was almost four times the next-best South African.

“It didn’t feel that difficult to me at the time. My adrenalin was pumping. Everyone was talking about how well I was batting and that it was such a tough wicket, but it honestly didn’t feel that difficult,” de Villiers recalled of the innings that demonstrated why he is rated the world’s top batsman for both Tests and one-dayers. “It doesn’t happen a lot that you see the ball that well and that your feet move that well. That’s why I’m pretty angry with me not getting a hundred and then 80 not out or something like that in the second innings.”

De Villiers is not known as well as he should be for a player of such immense talent, and performances to match. But part of his reputation that has spread far and wide is how obscenely talented he is. He was playing off scratch in golf by his mid-teens, soon after he was ranked in the top two in his age division for tennis in South Africa, but shunned both sports because neither afforded him the team aspect he craved. Rugby, hockey (temporarily) and cricket were the beneficiaries of that, before he settled on the latter.

The energetic right-hander was just a year into his international career when he featured in his first Boxing Day Test at the MCG. During that match he was awestruck to have witnessed Ricky Ponting score a fine century against the Proteas. What stayed with him even more than the quality of the innings was the reaction to him, then just 21, seeking to personally convey his admiration for the Australia captain during the lunch break.

“It was horrible,” de Villiers recalled. “It took a bit of guts [to approach him] because half of the Aussie team was sitting there at the table, but I thought ‘Why not?’ because I was amazed with the way the guy was batting at that stage. I was looking up to him thinking ‘How does this guy just keep performing like this … it’s impossible.’

“I just thought [to say] ‘Mr Ponting, it was an amazing knock, well done.’ He just looked at me like I’d really lost the plot, [as if to indicate] ‘What are you talking about? You’re mad approaching me.’ I can’t remember him saying anything. He just shook his head and kept eating.

“I don’t think he’s such a bad person. He probably just felt the need to have a competitive edge over the opposition. You get funny kinds of senior players; I’m certainly not one of those guys. No matter who congratulates me, I definitely acknowledge it and thank the guy, even though he could be my worst opposition.”

De Villiers is a firm proponent of the “It’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice” mantra. The first time he played in a Test against Kumar Sangakkara, a brilliant wicketkeeper-batsman, the Sri Lankan made 287 as part of a partnership of 624 runs with Mahela Jayawardene (374) in 2006.

Despite that innings, and the fact the elegant left-hander is the only player in world cricket to have outscored de Villiers and boast a better average since the South African’s debut, de Villiers said it was the way Sangakkara conducted himself on and off the field that was why he looked up to the 36-year-old, and Australian Adam Gilchrist before him.

Of Sangakkara, de Villiers said: “There’s no doubt he’s a world-class player – amazing batter, amazing keeper – but the thing I admire about him most is that he’s an amazing person. A really kind guy, very approachable as well. That’s the first thing that came to mind when I met him.

“I feel the best players in the world, the guys who have the biggest impact on people, are the guys who have people skills – a good personality, a good heart. That’s one thing he’s got that I admire a lot. Skills and the number of runs you score doesn’t matter as much to me.”

That de Villiers is often so cheerful is partly due to his determination to “just wipe negative stuff out of my brain”.

“It might be a weakness of mine, but I honestly forget things like that. Maybe it’s a good thing,” he said. “But I assure you, whenever I fight with someone, no matter who it is, when I have a little bit of an argument two days later, I honestly won’t remember what we were arguing about, even if they’re still angry with me.”

One rare instance in which he has not totally shrugged off criticism relates to him taking over South Africa’s wicketkeeping duties in mid-2012 after the career-ending eye injury to champion gloveman Mark Boucher.

While the media criticism primarily related to a belief South Africa was unnecessarily burdening its best batsman, rather than an indication of his glovework being inadequate, de Villiers conceded he had been stung by the doubts cast, especially during the Proteas’ tour of Australia in late 2012.

“A lot of people thought I shouldn’t be keeping,” he said. “Especially in Australia, I remember there was a lot of writing about it. The amazing thing about writing is you don’t hear about it any more. Now you’re hearing about how amazing that last knock was, meanwhile a year ago he was writing taking the gloves was the worst decision ever.”

De Villiers said he had a lot of work to do on his glovework, but gave a strong indication that even with the recent debut of 20-year-old wicketkeeper Quinton de Kock – the youngster played as a specialist batsman in the second Test – he wanted to retain the gloves. Given that de Villiers has averaged 66.16 with the bat since taking over as wicketkeeper, and just reached 50 for an unprecedented 12th consecutive Test, there is no cause for an imminent change.

“I want to be the best, absolutely,” he said. “I’m nowhere near where I want to be. I’m working hard at my keeping and I still want to become a really world-class keeper.”

During South Africa’s first Test thrashing by Australia the Test vice-captain was refreshingly frank about his team’s performance, declaring its fielding verged on “embarrassing” and that he considered it “quite obvious that we’re in deep trouble and there’s only one team playing this Test match at the moment”.

De Villiers said such honesty was a trait he held as very important.

“I’ve got nothing to hide from anyone, especially in cricketing circles,” he said. “I’ll tell any person in the world my insecurities, I’ll give you my strengths, I’ll give you my weaknesses. I’m not shy about that. I’m also not shy to take on my weaknesses and my insecurities. I love it. I’ll say in a press conference ‘That’s where we went wrong, we were scared of doing this and that – but we’re going to get better at it.'”

While the way de Villiers plays his cricket brings a lot of joy to Test purists, he insisted his own level of happiness was largely irrelevant to what he did – or did not do – on the field.

“I’ve always been happy. I always knew I was going to be all right one day [at playing international cricket] – it was just going to take a bit of time,” he said.

“I’ve realised that, no matter how much success comes your way, you’ve still got to go home and be happy – with your wife, with your dog, with – hopefully – kids one day. That’s the real stuff.

“I think I’ve been very lucky to be where I am now – very fortunate, very happy with life. I just don’t want to get ahead of myself. If I score 50 hundreds in a row I’ll still be the same guy.”

Source: The Age – March 1, 2014 | Jesse Hogan

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