Dreaming with his eyes open

South Africa’s opponents beware: AB de Villiers could become your worst nightmare.

Dreamers are dangerous, and AB de Villiers is no exception. Arguably the most gifted South African sportsman of his generation, his reflexes and temperament are secondary to a defining ability to dream. When de Villiers dreams, he dreams big. He’s capable of turning big dreams into monumental realities, and for opposition teams, therein lies the danger.

“All people dream, but not equally,” begins de Villiers’ favourite quote by Thomas Edward Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia. “Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds, wake in the morning to find that it was vanity. But, the dreamers of the day are dangerous, for they dream their dreams with open eyes, and make them come true.” Lawrence was a scholar, an archaeologist, a lieutenant-colonel in the British Army, and a prolific writer. It’s little wonder that he’d resonate with de Villiers, a multi-talented individual with the drive to see his dreams to fruition. Some have been realised while others are still in the making. The beauty of dreaming is there are no limits.

The day-dreaming schoolboy always knew he’d represent South Africa. The only unknown was in which code. An excellent golfer and tennis player, a flyhalf for the Blue Bulls Craven Week team, and a member of the South Africa Under-19 cricket side, he eventually decided on cricket, graduating to the Proteas at the age of 20.

Six years on, and he still harbours an ambition to be the greatest cricketer of all time. He’s currently the No. 1 batsman in the ODI format and 11th in the Test rankings. Not bad for a man of 26.

But there’s more. With dreamers, there’s always more. AB de Villiers and good friend Ampie du Preez released their first full-length album, Maak Jou Drome Waar (Make Your Dreams True), in 2010. It’s not just a hobby or a Brett Lee-Bollywood piss-take either. de Villiers and du Preez aim to record more music in years to come.

You see, there was another side to that day-dreaming schoolboy, a musical side that was never completely eclipsed by his sporting obsession. He was the kid singing into his toothbrush, singing in the choir and in school plays. That side of de Villiers was never completely repressed, and when he received an opportunity to make his musical dream a reality, he thought, “Why not?”

“It’s something separate from cricket, but it makes me feel good and gives me energy,” he explains. “Cricket will always come first, but I do have two months of spare time in the off season. Rather than play county cricket in England, I prefer to concentrate on my music. I’ve always felt I could make this dream work.”

His decision to invest in what’s become more than a hobby corresponds to his rise as one of the Proteas’ key cricketers. He was identified early on as an exciting talent, and when he performed, former management members Mickey Arthur and Jeremy Snape spoke about his potential as limitless. Consistency, they said, would allow him the platform to explore unchartered territory.

Before those portentous words were spoken in 2008, de Villiers was in a fight for his career. He was branded the next Herschelle Gibbs, a man with a rare talent that refused to be harnessed; a showman rather than a sportsman of substance. He needed to reassess. Greats like Graeme Pollock said he shouldn’t forsake his adventurous streak, but stressed that he needed to find parity for his own and the Proteas’ sake.

de Villiers averaged 58.04 from the beginning of the 2008-09 season to the start of the 2010 Test series against Pakistan. His growth as a player was marked by some big knocks and he featured prominently in the famous win over Australia. It was during this period that he announced himself as more than a dasher. He broke the Gibbs mould.

He went Down Under with the aim of scoring his first century against the trendsetting Australians. He was desperate to convert those promising 60s and 70s into a three-figure innings of substance. He succeeded, scoring one century in Australia and two more when the Aussies toured South Africa in early 2009. His strokeplay was a mix of the magnificent and the measured. de Villiers was suddenly a dreamer with direction.

“People see what I achieved as a schoolboy in the different sports, and perhaps they think it all comes easy. But I’ve learnt you can’t always succeed, and that failure can be important. “In 2006 and 2007, I went through a lean patch. I worked hard to correct my flaws, and I found a simpler approach that benefited my batting. I also stopped thinking about the big picture, and focused on the next ball.

“It became easier as I got older and more experienced. My understanding of my own game improved tremendously. My goal has always been to be the best and to ensure my team is the best. Those are goals that don’t come easily.”

His personal improvement coincided with a new responsibility. South Africa’s captain Graeme Smith told de Villiers to forget the fact that he was 24 – he was now a senior player. He needed to start contributing to strategic meetings and on-field pow-wows. What at first seemed a burden became a boon, and the change in mindset also helped his individual game.

“It’s easy to go out there and express yourself when the team isn’t under pressure, but it’s much harder to knuckle down and push for a vital 40 runs when the team is in trouble. Youngsters should be given the freedom to express themselves, but it becomes more of a balancing act as you get older. You have to sum up the situation and the conditions, and think about what you need to do in the next five balls.

“That’s why I don’t change much across the three formats; whether it’s a Twenty20, an ODI or a Test match, my gameplan is the same. I make a few little adjustments, as you can’t take 25 balls to play yourself in for a Twenty20 like you do in a Test. It’s just about adjusting quicker, and there are periods where you’ll look to dominate, and periods where you’ll play more conservatively.”

Snape, the former team psychologist and performance manager, says that two years ago, he felt it was his responsibility to perpetually challenge a player of de Villiers’s aptitude. Snape and Arthur have since moved on, and the onus has fallen on the current management to keep de Villiers motivated. The player himself feels no need for a minder. He believes it’s up to him to set new challenges and goals.

One would expect him to surpass a significant milestone this season. Apart from a rise in the international rankings, de Villiers is currently seventh on South Africa’s all-time run-scoring list. Before the Pakistan Test series, he was 322 runs shy of the sixth-placed Daryll Cullinan, which means a good 2010-11 season will see him surpassing the classy right-hander.

The gap between now and the end of his career is substantial enough to suggest we’re yet to see the best of him. Considering that Sachin Tendulkar (37) and Ricky Ponting (36) are still cracking centuries, de Villiers still has a decade at the highest level. He could well finish ahead of Jacques Kallis as South Africa’s most prolific Test batsman.

So what does the dreamer think about the possibility of being South Africa’s next great? The dream it seems, is more complicated than he first thought. de Villiers wants to be remembered for his attacking flair, but also wants to be remembered as the real deal. The realisation of this goal is something you won’t measure in hundreds scored, but rather in specific knocks that win big matches.

“I want to be the best, but I don’t give a damn about statistics,” he says. “Awards and accolades are great as long as the team is doing well, but you can’t set yourself the goal to be No. 1 or to be in the top three. You will have your end goal in mind, but you have to work hard to get there; ball by ball, innings by innings.”

The statement goes to show that while de Villiers will always be a dreamer, he’s matured to the point where he no longer believes greatness is a destination. It’s an attitude that will serve him well.

Source: CricInfo – Decmber 12, 2010 – JON CARDINELLI

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