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Ed Smith

The man with no minus

In most sportsmen, extraordinary ability and strengths are inevitably accompanied by some inadequacy, big or small. Not so with AB de Villiers

Ed Smith
Ed Smith
AB A+: technically gifted, athletically supreme, brutally powerful  •  Gallo Images

AB A+: technically gifted, athletically supreme, brutally powerful  •  Gallo Images

If someone could do it all, what would sport look like? What if natural talent, innate athleticism, balanced temperament, honed technique, superlative will - what if they were all found, carefully mixed without any dilution or imbalance, in the person of one player?
The batsmanship of AB de Villiers is approaching that status. As he plays his 100th Test match in Bangalore this week, de Villiers' reputation as the definitive all-round modern batsman is growing: an average of 52 in Tests at a strike rate of 54, and an average of 54 at a strike rate of 100 in ODIs - a number that leaps to 126 in T20s. His complete excellence has expanded our understanding of what can be done with a cricket bat. For all his relaxed courteousness, de Villiers is iconoclastic in his brilliance: he has pushed back at the old assumptions that used to shackle batsmanship.
He is an accidental innovator. By uniting gifts and strengths that usually exist separately, de Villiers provides a thrilling glimpse of the future. If the game can follow his lead, we will have quite some sport on our hands.
What makes him so special? One analogy can be drawn from outside cricket. In 1979, a 20 year-old from Michigan called Earvin "Magic" Johnson was drafted to play for the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA. His position was point guard - traditionally a role for shorter, high-skill players who "ran" the game with their intelligence and support play. Above all, point guard was a passing position: one central task is ensuring that his team takes the high-percentage shot. So the point guard assesses and controls risk and reward, like a midfield maestro in football, moving the ball around the court to the team's maximum effect. In this aspect of his play, the rookie was - and remained - peerless. In some respects, Johnson was the point guard's point guard, the playmaker extraordinaire.
There was something else, however, something extra. He was 6ft 9in, massively taller than conventional point guards. But there was no diminution in other areas of his game. Johnson was big and yet he had brilliant hands; he was powerful and yet also superbly intelligent; he was imposing and also electric; he was a huge offensive threat and yet a lethal creator of opportunities for others. He did it all. In the final game of Johnson's rookie year, with the series poised 3-2, the Lakers suffered an injury to their talismanic centre, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The positional demands of centre (the towering target man) and point guard (the all-round playmaker) are at opposite ends of the spectrum. The Lakers' solution was to move Johnson to centre. It was like getting a leggie to bowl fast. Magic scored 42 points, one of basketball's greatest performances, and delivered his team the NBA Finals title.
Some top players are more cricketers than athletes, others more athletes than cricketers. With de Villiers, an all-round sporting prodigy, there is no distinction. He plays cricket like a natural sportsman and also like a pure cricketer
The analogy applies to the career of de Villiers because there was no negative implication to the novelties that Johnson brought to the court. There were no unavoidable debits to cancel out the extra credits. It was excellence plus, not excellence but…
It is easy to forget, when they are so naturally in full flow, that these players are doing something new and remarkable. Far more often, sport is a question of tolerable weaknesses, and strengths that only just pay their way.
The big hitter who can turn a match but can't cope with a prolonged technical examination; the nuggety opener who can stick it out but not move the game along; the exquisite stylist who is a just a little bit flaky; the artist without steel; the steel without artistry. We are used to interpreting sport as a series of inevitably linked pluses and minuses. And quite rightly too, because most careers, even fine careers, are played out within that equation of compromise.
Most, but not all - and this is where sport becomes especially interesting. In his celebrated 2006 essay on Roger Federer, the novelist David Foster Wallace described finesse within power, the greatness of completeness:
With Federer, it's not either/or. The Swiss has every bit of Lendl's and Agassi's pace on his groundstrokes…[But] subtlety, touch, and finesse are not dead in the power-baseline era. For it is, still, in 2006, very much the power-baseline era: Roger Federer is a first-rate, kick-ass power-baseliner. It's just that that's not all he is.
So it is with de Villiers. He is a murderous and brutal white-ball power-hitter - and an accomplished old-school technician capable of playing "properly" against exacting bowling. He can clear the front leg and pepper the on-side stands - and yet deflect, touch and time the ball on the off side. He can stand still and slug it out - or circle around the enemy. He can win the macho way - or kill with a thousand delicate cuts.
Some top players are more cricketers than athletes, others more athletes than cricketers. With de Villiers, an all-round sporting prodigy, there is no distinction. He plays cricket like a natural sportsman and also like a pure cricketer. He has access to cricket's particular traditions and crafts but he is not limited or bound by them. He can break out - in top gear - and play a primitive game of bat v ball instead of batsmanship v bowler.
As a technician, he is assured and complete - like his former team-mate Jacques Kallis. As an athlete, he is fast, powerful and instinctive - a nod in the direction of Andrew Symonds. As a touch-player, there are echoes of Mark Waugh and Damien Martyn. The all-round package, that's the extraordinary thing.
And, inevitably, all of those qualities rely on superlative natural talent. The difference, the central difference, is that many elite sportsmen who are so talented don't bother to develop and acquire the craft, skill and match-awareness that de Villiers has also mastered. They don't have to. They are good enough without having to bother. De Villiers' natural gifts could have adequately solved most of the problems cricket threw at him. But adequately wasn't sufficient, not for him. So he stayed longer with the problems of batsmanship, even though they weren't that personally problematic.
Johnson could have used his height and power to hide a lack of inventiveness and creativity. Federer could have relied on ball-striking alone to bully weaker players. AB de Villiers could have been merely a super-talented all-round sportsman having fun on cricket field, good enough to whack the occasional match-winning innings and stay in the team.
But enough wasn't enough, not for them - and so their sports train on, new possibilities, once unimagined, opening up in front of them.

Ed Smith's latest book is Luck - A Fresh Look at Fortune. @edsmithwriter