AB de Villiers, the entertainer par excellence
AB de Villiers is a genius. He might not have invented any stroke (and I write this with some skepticism), but had the unique ability to absorb all inventions into his repertoire and perfect them against the best of bowlers on the international stage. He can hit a ball, oftentimes the same ball, to different parts of the field, for which reason he is known as Mr. 360. One might as well give him an honorary doctorate now and call him Dr. 360!
The owner of the fastest century in one-day international cricket and the second highest score by a South African batsman in Tests, AB belongs to a very elite club of batsmen who average over 50 in both those formats of the game after many matches. His outrageous scoops over long leg, his slog-sweeps over mid-wicket, his checked drives through extra-cover and his copybook forward defensive strokes define intent, each in its way.
He is just 34, the age when batsmen from elsewhere in the world begin to contemplate a second prime, and few would have complained if he had decided to continue till the 2019 World Cup, especially given South Africa’s record at ICC tournaments. Abbas (as he is fondly referred to by his Protean teammates), however, has decided to bring his extraordinary international career to a close, giving those of us who were lucky to watch him play an opportunity to reflect on it.
A great player of great innings
I once heard on Channel 9 that a batsman may be seen as a great player (read Jacques Kallis) or a player of great innings (read Graeme Smith). De Villiers is both, and his place in the pantheon alongside the likes of Sachin Tendulkar, Kumar Sangakkara and Ricky Ponting is, therefore, assured. It is difficult, though, to ‘reduce’ (for that is what it is) AB’s batsmanship to any taxonomy, for which (non-)reason his right-handed magic at the crease may be compared only to the immeasurable incandescence of a certain Brian Charles Lara.
AB’s methods might have been different from Lara’s -- the Trinidadian tailored a square cut from a curlicue of a back lift; the Pretorian just slapped it; the southpaw on song drilled a drive through mid-off; the right-hander just needed to persuade it; Lara’s defensive strokes too hinted at the dynamic, De Villiers’ at the perfectly static -- but as an entertainer he was in the same league as Lara. Why, he was even (echoing Mr. Harsha Bhogle’s thoughts) perhaps his rightful, if right-handed, successor in that regard.
De Villiers has been a great entertainer because he is a great performer; and like other great performers in other fields -- think Marlon Brando, Michael Jackson, MS Subbulakshmi, Roger Federer or the aforementioned Brian Lara -- he has been able to transcend and thereby erase the context of his performances due to their breathtaking beauty and clarity.
So, when one rewinds AB’s international career, one is apt to think of a bouquet of lush groundstrokes and a posse of brilliant aerial shots but not necessarily the poor bowlers whose were at the receiving end of his genius. One is likely to remember quick half-centuries and rapid hundreds, in World Cups and elsewhere, but not the teams they were made against, nor the teams one was rooting for.
One may also recount, viscerally, a few backs-to-the-wall defensive masterpieces (read ‘master classes’) in a few Test matches, without the urge to look at the results of the contests in question, or his all-round brilliance on the field.
AB, AB, AB...
The reception that De Villiers receives at his IPL home, Bangalore, where one hopes he would return for a couple of seasons more, captures the reputation he has earned as a cricketer. When Chinnaswamy erupts with a thousand concurrent chants of “AB”, for instance, evoking whatever Pretoria there is in Bangalore, one realizes that the ‘red army’ have taken him to their hearts as much as they have his skipper, Virat Kohli, which is no mean thing.
A less grounded individual might have let such well-earned fame and affection unhinge him. Not AB, who remains grateful for having been given the opportunity to play cricket in the first place and, in the second, for having been able to play it excellently at the highest level for a long time. Even a cursory look at de Villiers’ autobiography reveals a humble man, and one who owes the greatness he has achieved in the game to his family, friends, support staff and colleagues.
If AB, the batsman and athlete, has shocked us at every turn with the kind of stroke play he can conjure up on the field, Abraham Benjamin de Villiers, the human being, has surprised us by showing that celebrated sportsmen can lead perfectly normal lives off it. His lesson can only be a shot in the arm for those who dislike the bluster and bravado associated with modern sport, but who still wish to make a career in it.