Johannesburg - In the later stages of his career, AB de Villiers batted in a box. It wasn’t a real box, visible to those around him, but an imaginary box, and it helped De Villiers negotiate what he had to do.
Outside of the box he wouldn’t step. All he would do at practice was concentrate on what balls came into the box, where his weight was going and how he was moving his hands.
It was the perfect method – pare things down to the essentials. Don’t complicate what only suffers from complication.
Fourteen years of international cricket had taught him this.
Coaches would be dumbfounded. He had a pretty relaxed approach to practising at the best of times, but there he would be, on the eve of an important test match, and Russell Domingo or Ottis Gibson would be throwing him balls.
The guys in the net alongside him would be sweating, shirts off, dealing with the quicks, lapping the spinners, fretting, while he would be unconcerned. He’d be batting in his box.
After 20 or so balls, he might well say: “Thanks, Ottis, that’s great, I’m seeing it really well today. I feel fine,” and head off to rip the lid off an energy drink.
Gibson would shake his head and chuckle, wondering whether he was earning his salary or if he was taking Cricket SA for a ride.
The advent of T20 cricket breathed new life into the game for De Villiers and widened the parameters of the possible.
He prodded at the envelope, sometimes pushing through. He scooped, he reverse-swept, he glided. He invented shots that hadn’t been named. The strange thing was, he never practised any of it. Never!
His view was that these were innately dangerous shots. Practising them in the nets only increased the risk of injury, particularly to the face, so why bother? Why get hurt in the nets when you could get hurt in a Test match itself? Get hurt when it mattered. When it counted.
De Villiers was hurt many times in the course of his long and distinguished career, but Nathan Lyon dropping the ball on him after he was run out at Kingsmead Stadium in Durban in the first test against Australia in March hurt him more than most. Having a ball dropped on him was a kind of sly, sneaky thing that De Villiers didn’t like, and he came to the crease for the next test in Port Elizabeth determined to make the Australians pay.
“Nathan Lyon lost the series for Australia when he dropped the ball on AB like that,” said a member of the cricket community who didn’t want to be named. “He tickled the bear. You should never tickle the bear, we know that. Even if it hadn’t all unravelled at Newlands with the ball-tampering incident, that was a pivotal moment.”
De Villiers’ 100 at St George’s Park in Port Elizabeth was an innings of such careless grace that it left the nation spellbound. He made the best test attack in the world look ordinary, and he did this without a plan. Steve Smith didn’t have enough fielders. De Villiers always found the gaps. Slowly, the pendulum of the game shifted and, with it, the series.
Kagiso Rabada was magnificent with his 11 wickets in the match, but thanks to De Villiers’ 126 not out in the Proteas’ first innings, the die was cast. South Africa didn’t look back.
De Villiers’ retirement this week wasn’t really a surprise. In a way, he had Lyon to thank for stoking the competitive fires one last time. He had made his test debut at St George’s under Ray Jennings all those years ago, opening the batting with Graeme Smith, so the ton against the Aussies back there had a lovely symmetry to it. It was the closing of a circle.
The fact was, De Villiers was playing his cricket on memory, not enjoyment.
His comeback tests this summer past showed him rejuvenated, but incompletely so. Before he took his sabbatical, he’d had a disappointing series against England at home. His shots against them in the final test at Centurion were some of the most wretched of his career. He looked like he was giving the slip cordon fielding practice.
And what of next year’s World Cup?
The last World Cup was synonymous with heartbreak for De Villiers. Run out via a direct hit in a group game against Australia in 2007, he was also run out in a mix-up with Faf du Plessis in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in 2011. Four years later, Haroon Lorgat fiddled with the side in the semi-final against New Zealand.
South Africa’s one-day side is a mess at the moment. Good as he is, De Villiers isn’t good enough to fundamentally change it, so it’s time to move on.
To think outside the box.