I'd like to begin with a confession. I actually love AB de Villiers. His boyish charm and mischievous smile have been among the most endearing features of the contemporary South African side. And then there's his batting. Boy, oh boy. He has an uncanny ability to adapt his game to any situation, be it the attritional amphitheatre of Test cricket or the colourful circus of Twenty20. It has, perhaps, been in the latter that AB has shone the brightest, having improvised a number of mind-boggling strokes for the format: his audacious hoick over the wicketkeeper's head is a personal favourite. Throw into the mix his dexterous fielding and his acrobatic ability behind the stumps, and you have a truly irresistible entity.
However, as much as I might love AB, I am really struggling to place his admittedly impressive achievements in the wider context of South Africa's cricketing history. As far as I'm concerned, the top four of an all-time South African XI practically picks itself: Graeme Smith, Barry Richards, Jacques Kallis and Graeme Pollock in that order. Thereafter, however, selection becomes trickier. The number six will have to be the wonderful Mike Procter, with Mark Boucher taking up the keeper's mantel at seven. That still leaves a position vacant in the middle order. AB currently sits in fourth place on the list of South Africa's highest run-getters, and he has scored the bulk of those runs at No. 5. It's a no-brainer. Why, then, am I struggling to include de Villiers alongside the likes of Richards, Kallis and the Pollocks?
To date, AB has made 18 Test hundreds, ten of which were compiled at number five. Of the other eight, three were made in his first incarnation as an opener and five were made at No. 6. It is not, however, the positions in which he made these hundreds that rankles me, but the manner in which they were registered. Only thrice has de Villiers scored a Test century without a team-mate also crossing the three-figure mark. Doubtless, many would see this as some sort of obtuse criticism. For if it is a skill to construct an innings, surely it is no less a skill to seize the impetus and stifle your opponent's last breath. And yet I feel there is some justification to my disparagement, for do we not adulate and idolise lone resistance the most?
Let us examine the figures a little closely. In the three instances de Villiers alone made a hundred, he walked to the crease at 49-3, 99-3 and 107-3 respectively. The first of those innings was against Australia in 2009, an unbeaten 104 in a losing cause as Mitchell Johnson ran rampant at the Wanderers. The second was compiled against the Pakistanis early last year, the precarious scoreline belying the match situation: Dale Steyn had consigned the bewildered tourists to a record low of 49, placing the South African lead at a heady 303 when AB took guard. Finally, he made 121 against the Pakistanis at Centurion three weeks later, an innings counter-balanced by Hashim Amla's breezy 92. It would seem that, when the pressure is on and the chips are down, de Villiers has seldom stepped up to the plate.
There are exceptions to this rule, though alas none where AB alone sparkled. In just his fifth Test, the twenty-year old blonde wonder-kid survived Andrew Flintoff's opening salvo of Andrew Flintoff to make his maiden hundred, with the redoubtable Kallis scoring 136 at the other end. Again, at Perth in 2008, he shared a significant partnership with Kallis, joining the party with the Proteas 179-3 chasing 414. Yet, with Smith having taken a hundred off the Aussies and every batsman bar Neil McKenzie crossing fifty, his was hardly a single-handed effort. His recent hundred against the touring Indians is a better example of his obduracy; the headlines may have been reserved for Faf du Plessis' monumental 134, but it was equally AB's 103 that ensured the South Africans remained in contention. However, that innings was an exception; too often he has marked his ground with 300 already on the board.
Obviously, this is not AB's fault. So prolific have Smith, Kallis and latterly Amla been, that he has scarcely had the occasion to flex his muscles early. And yet Steve Waugh shared a dressing room with Langer, Hayden and Ponting, and his record at No. 5 remains one of the best. VVS Laxman too spent the majority of his career in the middle-order, carving his own unforgettable legacy despite the extraordinary exploits of Sehwag, Dravid and Tendulkar. At the opposite end of the spectrum is Shivnarine Chanderpaul, surrounded by mediocrity for much of his career, who continues to scuttle across wickets the world over, aged 39, defying attacks with a tenacity unmatched by any contemporary.
Oft were the times when Kallis shepherded AB to a big score - both his 200s were preceded by a century from Kallis. But now, with du Plessis mooted to occupy Kallis' No. 4 slot, there will be one less marquee name to hide behind. With more responsibility, perhaps we'll see more grit from AB. The Chanderpaul standard is what I expect from him. I want to see him make ugly runs; I want to see him fight for every single as though his life depended on it. Because, at the moment, it all looks a little too easy.
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Eliot is a fan of Garry Sobers. Aside from some age-group cricket his playing career has thus far been unspectacular. He is currently attempting to transform himself into a legspinning allrounder à la Shahid Afridi.
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