Born to run
AB de Villiers could have been a household name in any sport and his innings in Grenada restored the faith of his seniors
AB de Villiers defied the combined effects of cramp, heat exhaustion and dehydration to clobber 146 of the finest runs from just 130 balls
AB de Villiers is one of those nauseatingly-talented sportsmen who could have turned his hand to pretty much any game he so wished. The son of sports-obsessed parents who moved from the backwoods of Limpopo Province to Pretoria when he was just six, he was blessed with such outrageous hand-eye co-ordination that a career in tennis, rugby or even golf could have made him into a household name.
But in the end (or rather, in the beginning, seeing as he made his debut at the tender age of 21) he chose cricket, and after Tuesday's sensational performance against West Indies in Grenada, it's looking once again like a very fine decision. de Villiers defied the combined effects of cramp, heat exhaustion and dehydration to clobber 146 of the finest runs from just 130 balls, and then - despite being plugged into an intravenous drip after his dismissal - he returned to the field to grab a smart low catch at point.
It's been a bit of an all-or-nothing tournament for de Villiers. The last time he teed off to such spectacular effect was also the last time he made any runs of note - against Australia at Basseterre
in the pool stages, when a freak run-out from the boundary's edge by Shane Watson sawed him off for 92 from just 70 balls. On that occasion, South Africa were chasing a massive 378 for victory and understandably faltered, but today de Villiers showed he was just as happy setting the pace.
Since then, however, he's been rather alarmingly anonymous - a pair of ducks against Sri Lanka and Ireland and just 15 in the defeat against Bangladesh, when his untimely dismissal really opened the floodgates. But there was never any question of his captain or management losing faith in him - he's simply too much of a golden boy to fail for long.
The composure de Villiers showed on his international debut remains remarkable to this day. In a seismic series against an England side at the peak of their powers in 2004-05, he was thrown in as an opener in an unsettled and experimental side for the first Test. Within a week of South Africa's opening defeat, he was making his debut all over again - as a No. 7 batsman and wicketkeeper (another useful string to his bow), and contributed an unbeaten 52 to salvage an incredible last-gasp draw.
By the fourth Test at Johannesburg, Mark Boucher was back in his rightful place with the gloves and de Villiers was floating, a touch aimlessly, in the middle order, but for the series decider at Centurion, he leapt into the opener's slot and responded gleefully with twin scores of 92 and 109. He has been a fixture in the Test team ever since, although his one-day appearances have been patchier, with several fits and starts until a more solid run in the side leading into the World Cup.
After this little onslaught today, however, there'll be no quibbling about his role at the top of a South African batting line-up that few can match for sheer power. He is smaller - more delicate even - than many of his colleagues, the bruisers Graeme Smith and Jacques Kallis in particular. But he packs such a mean punch in a bat that he wields like a rapier. On Tuesday, even with his movement so hindered that he was falling over in his followthrough, he smoked the ball through the covers with the grace, timing and placement of a Roger Federer. Which is what, in another life, he might have become.
What he says
"I was actually trying to get out but that didn't work, so I had to play through the cramps. I stayed there for much longer than I thought I would, but when I got to a hundred I knew I had to go for it and play my shots - because I knew the guys after that could hit the ball even further than me."
What they say - Brian Lara
"It was a very good innings and it laid the foundations for South Africa. He gave them their momentum in the 10th to 15th over, and they never let go of it. When he scored a hundred and pulled up with cramp, he decided to play for boundaries. It was a very good innings, and a good allround performance."
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo