Rhodes scholar de Villiers learns his lessons well

It was 4am in Pretoria and an eight-year-old Afrikaans boy was watching the 1992 World Cup on television. His most vivid memory is of Jonty Rhodes haring in from point and diving full length to run out Pakistan’s Inzamam-ul-Haq.

Abraham Benjamin de Villiers decided at that moment that he wanted to be like Jonty and, last week in Perth, did a convincing impression of his boyhood hero with his superb catching against Australia before he nervelessly batted South Africa to its incredible first Test victory.

In doing so, he helped his country write a new chapter in its post-isolation history, which started painfully when the Proteas were ejected from that World Cup because of rules for revising the target in rain-affected matches, which were subsequently changed.

“I remember watching his run out when I was eight years old watching the 1992 World Cup. It was four in the morning, I watched that run out live and I decided that’s what I want to do one day. Lucky me, I have got the opportunity,” de Villiers said. “I think I have got massive footsteps to fill, he was an amazing sportsman and, even better, an amazing person off the field, so he is a real role model for me and I would love to fill those footsteps one day, but I have got a lot of work to do.”

The frightening thing about de Villiers’ all-round performance in the compelling series opener is that it displayed only a handful of his many gifts. In the four years since his debut, de Villiers has kept wicket, opened the batting and lit up the middle order. He could have attended the Nick Bolletieri tennis academy when he was 12, but wasn’t prepared to leave his family at the time, and followed his brothers through the Afrikaans Hoer Seunskool in Pretoria, a rugby and cricket school, instead. He could have been fly-half for the Blue Bulls, but cricket won when he starred in a national junior team.

“I always fielded in the backyard to my brothers, I had to field the whole time and maybe get an opportunity to bat before the end of the day,” he said. “I grew up catching balls, going crazy, running around diving and trying to impress my brothers. I just love ball sports.”

But A.B. de Villiers has a secret. He can’t do everything. At least, he can’t do everything “Absolutely Brilliantly”, to borrow a phrase popular in South Africa in the aftermath of his latest heroics.

“I love my music, but I’m not that good,” confessed de Villiers, who recently collaborated with a musician friend to record a single. “I can keep the notes, but I’m not going to do a Luciano Pavarotti or whatever.”

It may also surprise, given the energetic confidence he exudes, that the 24-year-old was a bundle of nerves the night before he helped South Africa chase down 414 for victory.

“The night before when I was 11 not out I got to the hotel and I was pretty tense. That 11 I worked really hard for because I knew if I lost my wicket then we were in big trouble. I was really nervous and shaking and I thought, I’ve got a massive mountain to climb tomorrow,” de Villiers said.

“I woke up the next morning after I read a bit of Bible verse the night before and felt relaxed, I felt everything was in control and whatever happens it’s going to be for the good. Things happened so quickly. Before I knew it we needed seven runs to win. I remember asking JP (Jean-Paul Duminy) what do we need because I was really tired before the end, and he said seven. I couldn’t believe it.

“It was a good day. I don’t know how I stayed calm. It was probably a bit of experience. I have been in that situation before and failed a few times before, learned out of my mistakes. I think that’s a recipe for any success story.”

De Villiers finished on 106 not out, a fine companion to his 63 in the first innings and a continuation of the rise of the former child prodigy who has been a critical part of the emergence of a new, unscarred South African side since a 22-year-old Graeme Smith took over the captaincy. Coach Mickey Arthur traced his coming of age to the recent tour of England, when Arthur and Smith gave him a stern lecture after an impulsive shot at Lord’s.

The headstrong de Villiers didn’t like what they said, but accepted that “you have to take a bit of responsibility”.

“They had a go at me, I got out to Monty Panesar at a bad time at Lord’s. I didn’t feel I was wrong, so I stood up for myself and said, ‘Listen, that’s the way I always play’. I was in exactly the same situation again in Perth, I tried to go over the top and it went through Brett Lee’s hands, so I could have been out and it could have happened all over again. But that’s the way I play. I got four runs, and it worked out that day.”

Source: The Age – December 26, 2008 / CHLOE SALTAU

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