KHANYISO TSHWAKU: A B de Villiers was a very good Proteas player, but was he great?
'De Villiers wasn’t some punk who thrived on painting graffiti on subway walls. This was a multi-skilled and multi-armed batting Clint Eastwood'
I’ve spent the better part of my late teenage years and my career as a sports journalist watching Abraham Benjamin de Villiers bat and I have to say: it was time well spent.
However, as I need to qualify, De Villiers can only be classed as a very good batsman who was worth every rand, pound, rupee or dollar spent seeing his willow weave its artistry.
Great is a misused term, especially in the South African cricketing context. There is no International Cricket Council silverware to show for their efforts and this is the sad but unavoidable truth. This is what greats are measured on.
Each era has its superstars and this one will be remembered for how De Villiers not only redefined the art of batting but showed willow-wielding was a vocation, a science and a calling. You must have a fair bit of talent and discipline to seamlessly mix flair and substance. This was second nature to De Villiers.
The 2012 trip to Australia was an example of how De Villiers could do nothing and everything on the same wavelength.
The Adelaide Test (yes, that Faf du Plessis combined debut and coming-of-age epic at a half-built ground) was a stonewalling exhibition of the highest order and one that’s a benchmark of how rearguards should be constructed. Everyone remembers Du Plessis’s ton and how it kept the rampant Australians at bay.
It wouldn’t have been possible without De Villiers. For four hours and six minutes, De Villiers collected 33 runs but soaked up 220 balls without hitting a boundary. Against India in Delhi in 2015, he scored 10 more runs, hit six fours, but faced 77 more deliveries in what was a futile effort.
For those who've marvelled at De Villiers’ exploits with Indian Premier League side Royal Challengers Bangalore and the fact he’s the owner of the fastest ODI ton and 150, how is this possible? Well, the realms of the unexplained and somewhat confusing cricket universe somehow allow these things to happen.
The elasticity of his mind, how he bent his will and how he curbed his naturally attacking instincts show how special he was as a batsman. He could do it all and the stats don’t lie. De Villiers wasn’t some punk who thrived on painting graffiti on subway walls. This was a multi-skilled and multi-armed batting Clint Eastwood.
In the very next Test in Perth, he barrelled a relentless 184-ball 169 that ensured South Africa would, for the second consecutive time, leave Australia with a Test series win. De Villiers played a major hand in both those series wins.
In the group that handsomely smothered Australia in the recently completed Test series, De Villiers was the only player to have played in a team that lost a Test series in Australia. That was all of 13 years ago.
Now back to the earlier question: Why should De Villiers be classed as very good and not a bona fide modern great?
This is very straightforward: he failed to deliver a trophy for the national team. This may come across as harsh but greats are not only measured by their individual feats but also by the bacon they deliver for their nations.
The following names are worth noting: Clive Lloyd, Viv Richards, Kapil Dev, Steve Waugh (twice), Wasim Akram, Imran Khan, Aravinda da Silva, Shane Warne, Ricky Ponting, Adam Gilchrist, MS Dhoni, Sachin Tendulkar and Michael Clarke.
De Villiers belongs in this stellar cast on talent alone but they’ve all done something he’ll never do: shape the direction of a Cricket World Cup. De Villiers is a better batsman than some of these esteemed cricketers but in their country’s hour of need, they put their hands up.
There were factors beyond his control in St Lucia (2007), Mirpur (2011) and Auckland (2015), but excuses hold thin in the face of the cold statistics of those playoff matches.
De Villiers isn’t the first and won’t be the last exemplary cricketer who won’t have championships to show off because cricket is a team sport. However, given the stature in which South African cricket holds itself in the world, it is a significant and unforgettable blot in an otherwise clean copybook.
It is unfortunate that when you’re a once-in-a-generation player like De Villiers, you’re judged as much on what you achieved for your team as what you do for yourself. Lionel Messi carries the same cross for Argentina and he’s found it to be unbearable.
There was a sense of the valedictory in the manner in which he carried himself in the Australian series, so his retirement shouldn't be a surprise. It was a spellbinding 14-year knock and thanks for the memories, Abbas. It’s just a pity the bus from very good to great is one that you narrowly missed.