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South Africa cricket

February 17, 2014

AB's time to step up

Eliot Dix

AB de Villiers: Master of the supporting act © Getty Images

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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Posted by Dummy4 on (February 21, 2014, 7:17 GMT)

it may also indicate that other players are more likely to get big scores while batting with him i.e. shows his ability to build and support those around him with his positive energy etc.

it would be interesting to see the averages of other players that 'batted with him' vs 'not batting with him'

Posted by Dummy4 on (February 19, 2014, 18:15 GMT)

ABD, in my opinion is one of the best stroke makers from past 10 years. he played brilliantly against top bowlers of his era, played very well against Ajmal, jhonson, harris, siddle. i remember ABD hit 4 consecitive 4s against McGrath in 2007 world cup match and i said this boy has real special tallent. His 114* against aus in aus while chasing 414 against jhonson , lee and siddle was a remarkable inning, his 217* against india in india, his 174 against eng in eng, his 278* against pakistan in pakistan, and his 169 against aus in aus are the innings which shows his talent and his class. all these match winning innings were under huge pressure. i really put him in the class of great lara,ponting,sachin, sanga, KP,amla and clark. he has now 926 rating points,15th best ever. he is scoring at least a 50 from past 11 tests. great great achivements.

Posted by Thuso on (February 19, 2014, 7:07 GMT)

He was the best player against Australia in Centurion during the 1st test. He got 91 and 48 in the match and stood up alone. He had no one to hide behind there 'cause every1 was shocking. I thni those stats will definitely improve. Still the best player in our team in my opinion.

Posted by Hardy on (February 18, 2014, 22:14 GMT)

Let's be honest he should be playing at number four but his wicket keeping duties are preventing him from doing that. I can see weight to your argument but I think if he dropped the gloves & permanently became South Africa's no.4 he would show even more so what a truly special player he is. Plus we'd get to see him in the field where he belongs!

Posted by Channan on (February 18, 2014, 19:24 GMT)

Remember Sobers batted at #6. ABD is the finest batsman in the world today, period. What is this talk about someday he might be in the world eleven. Everyone picks Gilchrist in their world eleven. You have to be political to place Gilchrist ahead of ABD, which is what everyone is doing. In a lot of cases, you can pick a second eleven that will beat the world eleven. Am I wrong?

Posted by Dummy4 on (February 18, 2014, 6:07 GMT)

Why criticize AB for making his batting look too easy? Its not his fault that hes supremely I would like to see him bat at 4 though. But to be honest there isnt much of a difference between 4 and 5 so we shouldnt judge his record by this. His record is near to faultless in every aspect. He averages over 50 in tests and is the supreme right hander, if not the finest batsman in the world.I have no doubt that by the end of the career he would find a place in the all time world XI.

Posted by james on (February 17, 2014, 21:12 GMT)

If its that much easier to score a ton when others do, it just means that all those who do well when the team is struggling but not otherwise aren't trying in the so called 'easy' situations. ABdV is easily one of the best 5 batters in world cricket atm and the record shows this. Others probably kohli, clarke, amla and sanga

Posted by Altaf on (February 17, 2014, 14:59 GMT)

AB is the man who can be put in the row of Sobers, Richars, Sehwag.

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