AB de Villiers plays an audacious shot over short fine leg
© Associated Press

Essay

The audacity of AB

If you need a glimpse into cricket's future, look no further than Abraham Benjamin de Villiers

Tom Eaton  |  

A certain young musical genius - some claim it was Bach, others swear it was Brahms - liked to sleep in. As the rest of his family started their day, tugging on wigs and lacing up corsets, this particular lad preferred to snooze, dreaming of concerti.

Nothing would rouse him. Not bells or the creak of carts outside or the bleats of goats or parents or nannies. But his genius made him vulnerable to music. And so his father would sit down at the family piano and play a dominant seventh.

The dominant seventh is a simple progression of four notes, forming a chord that ends in a tantalising question mark. It's the "Aaaah!" build-up in the Beatles' "Twist and Shout". It is the piano soundtrack to that scene in the silent movie where the detective is pushing open the door to the secret cellar.

You and I feel it as a build-up of momentum, a mental itch that needs scratching. But for the young maestro, completing the musical phrase felt like a physical imperative. And so, the story goes, he would throw himself out of bed, storm downstairs and bang down a final chord on the piano to resolve that terrible, hanging question mark.

I thought about the young German genius just before tea on the first day of the recent Test in Chittagong. Faf du Plessis had just been torpedoed by Shakib Al Hasan and had collapsed forward with that theatrical slump that batsmen perform when they have been beaten and don't mind who knows it. The 11 Bangladeshis on the field celebrated, the 19 Bangladeshis in the stands celebrated even more, and du Plessis trudged off.

The stage was set. The dominant seventh had been played. We were ready to hear not only a grand resolution to that particular phrase but hours of sweet music afterwards. We were ready for AB de Villiers.

Those same politics that should apparently never interfere with sport have created a country in which de Villiers is free to express his genius

But de Villiers wasn't there. He was back in South Africa, given leave to be present for the birth of his first child. And so the chord hung and hung. Temba Bavuma played with character and maturity to spare the Proteas embarrassment, but in that moment I think I understood the young composer's angst. Because de Villiers is South Africa's resolution, our relief; the emphatic line drawn under the Proteas' statement of intent.

In retrospect, the clues were everywhere, most recently at the World Cup. But perhaps I could be forgiven for not seeing them. During World Cups, we South Africans tend to grow thick scales of pre-emptive disappointment over our eyes. Every silver lining is smothered by a large cloud. The glass isn't even half-empty: it has been knocked over and is lying broken on the floor in shards, reflecting a host of past disappointments - 22 runs off one ball, Lara, Donald-Klusener, Pollock's sums… In that fog of pessimism it was easy to discount de Villiers' purple patch as a fluke.

But there is another, more complex reason why we might not be seeing de Villiers with the same adoring clarity of his Indian fans. It is simply that we have been waiting for our true champion for so long that we are reluctant to believe he has arrived, in case it's not true and we are disappointed all over again.

I remember when I was initiated into South Africa's messianic cult of the batting champion; when I learned to pray for his return. It was the mid-1980s. I was eight or nine and I didn't know what cricket was or that my officially white supremacist country wasn't allowed to play it against other countries. But my father took me aside and showed the mysteries to me anyway. There were many cricketers, he revealed, but there were only three batsmen. One was Denis Compton, whom he had seen play at Newlands. The second was Neil Harvey. (I am not sure if my father had seen him in the flesh, but I was relieved he had never got too close to him because, it seemed, Harvey ate South Africans whole, gorging on them like a Cyclops in a fire-lit cave.) And finally - here his expression softened - there was Graeme Pollock: the beautiful golden boy, bareheaded, a temporary loan from cricket's gods, to be worshipped for a few brief seasons before reality and realpolitik intervened.

Victor Trumper would've been proud: de Villiers prepares to send it into orbit

Victor Trumper would've been proud: de Villiers prepares to send it into orbit © Getty Images

The dogma was clear. Compton was good. Harvey was great. But Pollock, ah, he was magical. And he was our champion, a South African genius, and a thing that only came along once in a generation. And so, as the decades passed and the next generation arrived, we kept vigil for our Pollock.

Peter Kirsten had evoked comparisons with Donald Bradman on the county circuit, but now he was past his best. Hansie Cronje had uncomplicated attacking intent but none of the technique to back it up. Daryll Cullinan was exquisite but flawed, and Herschelle Gibbs… dear, sweet, Herschelle…

Amid the disappointments, however, one name seemed to resonate with messianic promise. I first heard it at high school. Our determined but awful 1st XI had been annihilated, as usual; but on this particular weekend it seemed that the damage had been done by just one person: a certain J Kallis of Wynberg Boys' High.

When I first saw Jacques Kallis live, in a club game when he was barely 20, I understood why people whispered his name with something like reverence. He was hitting sixes over cover at will, caressing drives and holding the pose, facing quick bowlers in a soft cap. I believed that the golden child had arrived. But, despite all that came later, I was wrong.

Not that I dispute his greatness. I still think South African fans who condemned Kallis' "selfishness" are cricket illiterates, and I still believe that the Proteas owe their rise to dominance almost entirely to him. It was Kallis who single-handedly shouldered the burden of defence that allowed South Africa to crawl out of a mental hole that saw them endlessly slump to 90 for 5 in Tests and to become a team that regularly passed 300. Kallis resisted the regular collapses of the mid- to late-1990s, but they burned the young batsman. Exposed to intense pressure, he learned that his job was resistance, not expansiveness. It made him hard and perhaps undemonstrative. The fragility of his colleagues robbed us of a chance to see Kallis in full flow. And so, even though South African cricket owes Kallis almost everything, it could not hail him as the next Pollock.

Even today, decades after readmission, Graeme Pollock's truncated career remains the measure of South African greatness to which all newcomers must aspire

When Hashim Amla scored 311 not out at The Oval and reached 5000 ODI runs faster than anyone in history, we once again wondered if the moment had come. But even the most staid traditionalist knows that a true champion can't always be pedigreed and serene. Sometimes he must be able to slip into a raw top gear and spit fire.

And then, without fanfare, there he was. Somehow, without us really realising, our champion had arrived in the person of Abraham Benjamin de Villiers. Had it been his unbeaten 278, then the top Test score for South Africa? Should we have seen it in the almost run-a-ball 169 in Perth against Mitchell Johnson and Mitchell Starc, when he scored six runs more than Australia had managed in their whole first innings? Or was it those two ridiculous ODI innings in 2015?

Perhaps the old song is right and you don't know what you've got till it's gone. Perhaps that's why it took until the first day against Bangladesh in Chittagong for me to understand that I had grown accustomed, at the fall of the third wicket, to expect not a middle-order batsman but a champion.

De Villiers' arrival into his full power has been deeply satisfying to watch, but when a player shines particularly brightly, his radiance can cast his team or even his country in a new light, revealing previously unseen facets. And sometimes it can even create new shadows.

Amla and de Villiers both fail in the same innings so rarely that we aren't quite sure how the rest of South Africa's top six stand up to major pressure

Amla and de Villiers both fail in the same innings so rarely that we aren't quite sure how the rest of South Africa's top six stand up to major pressure © Getty Images

I found one of those shadows recently as I sifted through South Africa's records over the last four years, looking for statistics to back up an article I was writing on how mighty the team had become. The highlights were everywhere, impressive numbers next to equally impressive names: de Villiers, Amla, Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander… I went deeper. There were more run-a-ball hundreds, more six-wicket bursts - except they were the same names. I changed the search parameters, fiddled the criteria, changed home to away, excluded a year here or added one there. But the names didn't change. The same four. Over and over again.

It was startling. I had gone to the numbers to prove that the Proteas were a great team. Instead I discovered that, of the 86 hundreds scored by South African batsmen in Tests and ODIs since August 2011, de Villiers and Amla had scored 41. Steyn and Philander had shared half of the team's Test wickets. For all their successes and steely reputation, this is not a great team: this is a quartet of overachievers and then some other blokes.

The brilliance and consistency of de Villiers and Amla has created a peculiar void: they both fail in the same innings so rarely that we aren't quite sure how the rest of the top six stand up to major pressure. It seems a nonsensical problem - that there are usually too many runs on the board for South Africa to know how weak they really are - but at some point even geniuses run dry, and somebody is going to get badly exposed.

The second revelation that de Villiers has brought with him is more complex than the temporary fortunes of his team. It is, simply, that he doesn't really matter. At least not in the way that he might once have mattered.

His big hits have the vicious thwack of a penalty slapped at the top corner of a hockey goal, where the destination of the shot is more important than the shot itself

I know it sounds contradictory to suggest that he can be both essential and superfluous, but the difference lies in the two worlds he occupies. He is a cricketer but also a white South African, and they point to very different things these days.

In 1994, as Nelson Mandela was sworn in as the country's first democratically elected president, local cricket writing was glowing with the language of reconciliation and cross-cultural detente. Bitter historical enmities were thawing. Ugly wounds were being patched. As the sun rose over the rainbow nation, the press could trumpet the good news: white Afrikaners were playing cricket alongside white English-speakers.

In retrospect it seems laughable that people could engage in such intensely parochial navel-gazing during a globally important moment of decolonisation, but back then the inclusion of Afrikaners in the national cricket team was a major talking point for followers of the sport. Some Afrikaners, fearful of a post-apartheid backlash that might purge them from all national institutions, worried that their brightest and best were being deliberately overlooked in an attempt to appease the new black government. As a young Cronje warmed the bench in the early 1990s, his supporters waved placards reading "Gee Hansie 'n kansie!" - Afrikaans for "Give Hansie a chance." It was as much a demand for cultural representation as a call to acknowledge the young Cronje's talent.

Fuelling the fear that their boy would be shafted was the belief that South African cricket was dominated by an English-speaking old boys' network, an anxiety that tapped straight into old suspicions. By 1994 the bloodshed of the South African War (also known as the Anglo-Boer War) was almost a century in the past, but if you scratched in the right places, you could still find old bitterness.

Hansie Cronje was a poster boy for Afrikaner participation in cricket when South Africa needed one

Hansie Cronje was a poster boy for Afrikaner participation in cricket when South Africa needed one © Getty Images

Many Afrikaners still called English-speakers "Souties", an abbreviation of "Soutpiel" or salt dick, a colourful allusion to British colonials having one foot in England and one foot in Africa, leaving their unmentionables to dangle in the ocean. For their part, many English-speakers still entertained some ferociously Victorian snobberies about Afrikaners, deriding them as knuckle-dragging simpletons or rural rubes, and using them as convenient scapegoats for their own culpability in the apartheid system. In this cultural context, the appointment of Cronje as the new face of South African cricket was significant. It mattered that a sophisticated, articulate Afrikaner was being embraced by Mandela and Desmond Tutu.

Twenty years later it is mostly irrelevant that de Villiers is Afrikaans-speaking. Not that we've sorted out our complex problems around race and culture. Far from it. But he is proof that the conversation has moved beyond the white community. As the country grapples with its history and its present, the microphone has been gently wrested away from the whites and raised to the mouths of black people whose voices had been ignored for centuries. Now the questions are no longer about whether Afrikaners are getting a fair shake but why there are still so few black players in the national set-up; why, 25 years after readmission, Makhaya Ntini remains the only black player to have played more than six Tests for South Africa.

Few South Africans are offering intelligent answers. What is clear, however, is that the country has changed, and mostly for the better. Conservatives who claim that politics and sport shouldn't mix would disagree, but I think it is progress that the focus is now on de Villiers' race rather than his language. It means that the old parochialism has slowly begun to evolve into something that, with luck and political will, might resemble true inclusivity.

History has been kind to de Villiers. Those same politics that should apparently never interfere with sport have created a country in which he is free to express his genius. Now he stands on the pivot of the past and the future, representing both the traditions of the game and its rapid evolution.

To watch de Villiers over the last year was to see a batsman completely freed of the fear that has kept cricket in balance for generations

Maybe that is why some of us didn't see him coming: he was too present for a cricketing culture whose gaze is drawn restlessly and relentlessly into the past to ponder might-have-beens like Pollock, Barry Richards and Mike Procter. Even today, decades after readmission, Pollock's truncated career remains the measure of South African greatness to which all newcomers must aspire.

We are so busy gazing at an unattainable ideal that we haven't noticed that it has been attained. In his 23 Tests, Pollock scored 2256 runs at 60.97, with seven centuries. In his last 23, de Villiers has made 2149 runs at 61.40 with eight hundreds.

I understand why nobody is pointing out that extraordinary similarity. Comparing eras is fun but ultimately pointless. Besides, Pollock and de Villiers might share a burning desire to dominate but they embody profoundly different approaches to batting. Those who need their champions to show off the lazy virtuosity of Mohammad Azharuddin or to have Brian Lara's backlift - the flicker of a blowtorch being lit up - will always be disappointed by de Villiers. That's because he doesn't bat like a cricketer; he bats like a hockey player. The beautiful greats use the willow as an extension both of their forearms and of their artist's soul. The bat serves both their athleticism and their aesthetics. But for de Villiers the bat is just a tool designed for angling a ball around or over a field.

I think that is part of what makes him so good. Sometimes, when great batsmen launch a ball into the stands, you have the sense that they are focused entirely on the point of contact and that the flight of the ball is an amusing afterthought. Some even pretend a rather aloof disinterest, tracking the ball for some of the way before wandering down the pitch to bump gloves self-deprecatingly with their partner. Not de Villiers. His big hits have the vicious thwack of a penalty slapped at the top corner of a hockey goal, where the destination of the shot is more important than the shot itself. When de Villiers goes aerial, he means to hit not only the ball but the stands as well.

Too good to be true? South Africans seem reluctant to believe that their true champion may have arrived

Too good to be true? South Africans seem reluctant to believe that their true champion may have arrived © Getty Images

There have been other sniper-batsmen, men whose strokes have cracked away into the deep, the report echoing off the stands. But in de Villiers' almost total domination of one-day cricket, I see the signs of a fundamental shift. Indeed, I suspect that de Villiers might come to be remembered not only as South Africa's modern champion but also as the first great proponent of something that, for want of a better phrase, I am going to call New Cricket.

For 400 years, cricket in all its various incarnations has been a game in which a man with a ball asks questions and a man with a bat tries to answer them. The speed with which batsmen found answers defined their success. Good batsmen identified the pace, trajectory and deviation of deliveries more quickly than mediocre ones. The great ones used a combination of reaction and prediction, making extremely educated guesses as to what the ball would do and which shot would be the most effective. As Chris Lewis famously slung down a tired bouncer in Antigua in 1994, Lara had gone back so far and so early to get into position to pull that when he swung that famous four to the boundary, passing Sir Garry Sobers' record 365, he dislodged his off-bail for a moment. Despite being physically tired and sleep-deprived after a nervous night, Lara knew with absolute certainty where the ball would land before Lewis had let it go.

For some years now, coaches and sports scientists have been probing the physical limits of batsmen's reaction times, hoping to find a way of sending a message from the eyes to the brain and then to the limbs an invaluable thousandth of a second faster. Some of their research has shown just how phenomenal the reactions of top batsmen are, and how much visual information they can process at lightning speed. But they have also revealed how a great deal of that information is provided by bowlers, from the speed and angle of their run-up to their gather and delivery stride. Lara didn't guess that Lewis would bowl short. He used extraordinarily advanced cricketing senses to read a host of signals being broadcast to him.

Straight deliveries that are too short to drive and too full to pull often get put away between midwicket and mid-on with a two-handed cross-court topspin winner

The science of elite batsmanship can be surprising and delightful. I had the privilege of working with the late Bob Woolmer on his magnum opus, The Art and Science of Cricket, and I remember an amusing clash between traditional wisdom and new research. Sports scientist Tim Noakes had found evidence that seemed to suggest that batsmen don't actually watch the ball onto the bat. According to this research, batsmen draw on all the visual cues provided by the bowler to make an educated guess about where the ball will land. They then whip their eyes from the ball to that spot on the pitch to assess their choice, before jerking their eyes back to the onrushing ball, now, say, half a pitch-length away. They watch the ball for another fraction of a second, gauging its speed and trajectory, and then refine their original guess, once again whipping their eyes down to the pitch, this time with a clearer, more concentrated prediction of the landing zone. And so on.

Noakes was thrilled by the iconoclastic nature of these findings. Did we realise, he asked, that this meant the end of the old coaching mantra that youngsters should "watch the ball", given that batsmen were doing nothing of the sort?

Woolmer was always open to new ideas but I remember a slightly steely look came over him. "Okay," he said, "but I can assure you that when I faced Michael Holding at The Oval in 1976, I watched the ball all the way from his hand past my nose." It's hard to argue with someone who has faced Holding in his pomp, so I didn't try.

They might have disagreed here and there, but Noakes and Woolmer were on the same quest: to try to help batsmen answer questions faster and better than ever before. It all seemed very modern and high-tech then, in the mid-2000s, but now, as de Villiers continues to redefine one-day batting, I can't help feeling that their quest is part of a game that is quickly becoming obsolete; Old Cricket giving way to New.

Just as de Villiers snuck up on South Africans waiting for a champion, I suspect New Cricket arrived without us realising what was happening. The start was probably Sri Lanka's revolutionary shock-and-awe approach in the 1996 World Cup. The next phase of its evolution was the power hitters of the late 1990s and early 2000s, sluggers like Lance Klusener and Yuvraj Singh. Deftness was introduced along the way, personified by Tillakaratne Dilshan and his outrageous scoop.

Coaches say

Coaches say "watch the ball onto the bat". Tim Noakes suggests batsmen needn't © Getty Images

All were innovators, but innovating within the parameters of an old-fashioned mindset. However imposing they looked, and however audacious and inventive their strokeplay, they were still answering questions posed by bowlers.

Now the old status quo is being reversed. The era of batsmen reacting to bowlers is over. From here on, bowlers react to batsmen.

This is a seismic change, but it hasn't happened out of the blue. De Villiers didn't wake up one morning in 2015 and decide to make a century at three runs a ball. It happened because cricket is an ecosystem that has lost its apex predator: the genuinely fast bowler who poses a physical threat to life and limb. Once, these great beasts kept batsmen's hubris in check. It was basic biomechanics. The eyes, hands and feet of batsmen simply cannot react quickly enough above a certain speed. Bowl fast enough and pace always wins.

But now the hunters are vanishing.

In 1980 an international batsman could expect to face Holding, Malcolm Marshall, Andy Roberts, Colin Croft, Sylvester Clarke, Len Pascoe, Imran Khan, Bob Willis and the still-lively Richard Hadlee. A decade later, the number of physically dangerous pacemen had dwindled appreciably, although Curtly Ambrose, Ian Bishop, Patrick Patterson and Devon Malcolm could still break your arm while Waqar Younis and Wasim Akram went to work on your feet. In 1995, five had become four: Allan Donald, Waqar, the young Shaun Pollock toting a nasty bouncer, and, when riled, Ambrose. By 2000, only Brett Lee, Shoaib Akhtar and Nantie Hayward (when he landed it on the pitch) could make batsmen flinch. Since 2010 just one bowler, Johnson, has regularly terrorised batsmen. Steyn has been the superior bowler, and Morne Morkel is impressive for those 20 minutes every five years when the red mist descends, but the bottom line is that the modern international batsman has had physical fear almost entirely removed from the equation.

Indeed, one could argue that the burden of fear has shifted to the fast bowler: fear of career-ending injury; of being made to look impotent; of committing modern cricket's greatest sin by conceding boundaries, the hard ball pinging away off bats made of compressed and laminated rocket fuel. The predator that keeps the entire ecosystem in balance has had its teeth pulled - by chronic injuries, by helmets and bulletproof padding, by flatter wickets and bats that are more forgiving of batsmen's mistakes - and so his former prey make merry, growing bolder by the day.

De Villiers has punched through the fear barrier and is riding the clear, bright air on the other side, where the only limit is one's appetite for runs and the strength of one's arms and wrists

To watch de Villiers over the last year was to see a batsman completely freed of the fear that has kept cricket in balance for generations. Some of his virtuosity is the result of his all-round sporting genius. When he is on fire, his shotmaking becomes an endlessly adaptive hybrid of cricket, hockey and tennis. Straight deliveries that are too short to drive and too full to pull often get put away between midwicket and mid-on with a two-handed cross-court topspin winner. And yet when he is in full flow there is more going on than hand-eye coordination. De Villiers has punched through the fear barrier and is riding the clear, bright air on the other side, where the only limit is one's appetite for runs and the strength of one's arms and wrists.

His hundred off 31 balls against West Indies in January was pure New Cricket, a joyful demolition of the old laws of the game. It was heartbreaking to watch the seamers run in, dutifully obeying their training and tactics, not understanding that the rules had changed. They bowled short and straight, expecting de Villiers to run it down to third man or work it off his hips for one. Instead he knelt down into the path of the rising ball, waited just long enough to get a feel for the pace and direction, and then got his head outside the line and pulled over backward square leg for six. Pulled. The bowlers stared. With almost no fuss and only the sound of spikes scraping through grit, de Villiers had changed their length by changing his height. Barely three feet off the ground, he was turning their rising deliveries into dismal half-trackers.

Aghast, the seamers changed their length; fuller, slower, fingers cut down the side of the ball to make it float towards a fourth or fifth stump. It seemed like a good idea at the time. The logical percentage shot was a late cut for one. If de Villiers got lucky he might edge it past the keeper for four. But sixes were out of the question. He wouldn't risk one of his straight tee-shots against a slower ball. Not with long-off on the boundary.

And the bowlers were right. He didn't go straight. Instead, he squatted down again, his face directly in the path of the onrushing ball, weighed it up, tilted his head outside the line again, and swung it backward of square for more soaring sixes.

By the time de Villiers had passed 100, the West Indians knew exactly what he was doing. But it didn't help. Physically invulnerable, he could let his hands go where they wanted. He could abandon himself to pure instinct and impulse. He could become cricket's ultimate predator.

Purists and pundits worry that the game is becoming unbalanced. Bat is dominating ball, they say. Something should be done. The West Indians said the same thing in January. Do something. Anything.

But what?

How do you halt evolution?

How do you stop AB de Villiers?

Tom Eaton is a columnist, screenwriter and novelist from Cape Town

 

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