De Villiers resumes juggling act
In the last year or so, AB de Villiers has taken on South Africa's limited-overs captaincy, succeeded Mark Boucher as wicketkeeper in Tests, dropped the gloves in ODIs, resigned the T20 captaincy and converted to opener, then resumed as captain-keeper-batting buccaneer in one-day cricket. He has been like a cricketing Frank Abagnale, smoothly bringing his polymath skills to a range of different identities.
But not quite all of his tricks have come off. An introspective and honest captain - de Villiers broke South Africa's "choke" omerta at the World Twenty20 - he is also still learning the job, admitting he has "room for improvement" as a leader ahead of the first ODI against Pakistan. Previously, during the series with New Zealand, he handed the gloves to Quinton de Kock to direct events while prowling the infield, only to lose a grip on the over rate and pick up a two-match ban.
Despite calling it a burden, de Villiers' response has been to resume the juggling act, preparing himself to do all three jobs again in South Africa's Champions Trophy tilt. Extra responsibilities have not affected the flow of runs, with de Villiers averaging 77.82 as wicketkeeper and 93.14 as captain (his career average of 48.82 is the third-best of batsmen to have played more than 100 ODIs), and he has now reasoned that a busy mind is not necessarily a cluttered one.
"Cricket-wise, I am where I want to be. I am very comfortable keeping and batting," he said. "Being in charge of the over rate, I feel more in control when I have the gloves. I can move through the overs and the boys would follow. I've got room for improvement in captaincy. I've got a lot to learn. I am very relaxed and the guys back me as captain. I wanted to get comfortable in the side as a captain. It takes time, even for the best captains in the world, even for Graeme [Smith], he had his uncomfortable situations in the first year or two. I feel I've got the skill and I've got the backing of the team, which is the most important thing. "
Gary Kirsten has signalled an end to South Africa's limited-overs tinkering and, after a surprise first-ever home series defeat to New Zealand, a largely similar squad has been given the chance to take on Pakistan. The group does not lack for experience and leadership, with the Test and T20 captains, Graeme Smith and Faf du Plessis, both involved but after scraping a last-ball, one-wicket win to deny New Zealand a cleansweep in Potchefstroom, sharp improvements will be required in the face of Pakistan's zeal for one-day competition.
"We always reflect after every series and we did that after New Zealand," de Villiers said. "There was a lot of room for improvement after that. It started with a really bad taste in my mouth when I got suspended after the first ODI. I thought there were glimpses of good ODI cricket in the next two games and I thought Faf did well coming in as captain under pressure. That last ODI win was really important for us as a unit. We have covered the bases that we thought we needed to improve on for that."
A juggernaut in Test cricket, South Africa are more the jitterbug in the short forms, twirling between promise and poppycock. For the first ODI, they will be missing Dale Steyn, who has been taking in the Walk of Fame (Hollywood, rather than ICC) in LA, and Morne Morkel is unlikely to play as he continues to recover from a hamstring injury - providing further opportunities for the likes of Rory Kleinveldt and Kyle Abbott - but both will form part of their plans to take the Champions Trophy by storm in June.
De Villiers also hopes to have JP Duminy back to stiffen the middle-order by then. With the potential to call on Jacques Kallis as well, it is impossible not to admire their resources on paper. Unfortunately, at major tournaments, their plans have always been just as easily torn up.
"This is our strongest side, bar Dale Steyn, for the first game," de Villiers said. "We need to start bringing out the performances now. We need to start winning ODIs before the Champions Trophy otherwise we will go in there with no confidence and underprepared. This is our team and we've got to move forward with this team.
"It's a worry that we are without Dale and Morne but I've seen the guys we do have win games at domestic level. They are a very mature bowling attack and I expect them to come through with a bang. I have seen them perform and I know what they are capable of. They have had their time to get comfortable and this is their time to perform."
Stressing that the goal of performing at an ICC global tournament was more important than ideas of whitewashing Pakistan, de Villiers added: "The journey starts tomorrow for us." It will also be the resumption of a journey for South Africa's captain. A former editor of Wisden recently described de Villiers as the best Test player in the world but suggested that the triple role ascribed him in one-day cricket appeared too much. De Villiers, however, seems the man for a challenge.
Alan Gardner is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo