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Mark Nicholas

A different eye, a different mind

AB de Villiers was iconoclastic in his innovation and puritanical in his disciplines. From those contrasts came the man who can do it all

Mark Nicholas
Mark Nicholas
"Batting is frequently difficult and frustrating but even the most prosaic of batsmen can give pleasure with a mighty strike or an unlikely rearguard. It is a mainly instinctive skill and yet relies on method for its excellence.
Nothing, not even ballet, could be more graceful than a cover-drive by David Gower or an on-drive by VVS Laxman. Batting pleases the eye because it is a thing of straight lines that are subject to angles and dimensions. This feels like an accident but it is in the interpretation.
Above all, batting is fragile. One minute you have it, the next it is gone. A single ball will undo hours, days, weeks of preparation. For sure, batting - cricket indeed - is not to be trusted. It is played out on the edge of nerves. It examines character, explores personality and exposes vulnerabilities. A man scores a hundred one day and nought the next. This is wicked, it is unkind, but it is tempting and it is exhilarating. Raise your bat once and you will ache to do so again.
The art of batting is a beautiful journey with a beautiful result."
These are words I have used before in a book, A Beautiful Game. I reflected on them a couple of days ago, when AB de Villiers announced his retirement form international cricket. Of the truly great batsmen I have seen he is most creative, pushed only by Brian Lara and Barry Richards in the terms of a creative paradigm. Richards was watching in Cape Town as de Villiers moved through the gears in the third Test of the recent series against Australia. "He might be as good as you," I said. "Definitely," he replied.
In the previous Test, in Port Elizabeth, AB had arrived at the wicket with South Africa seemingly mesmerised by Australian reverse swing. Dean Elgar and Hashim Elgar had batted a session for 40-odd, a meagre return on a blameless surface but an immensely valuable one in hindsight. Almost immediately, de Villiers on-drove a boundary from a line just a tad outside off stump as if he were a master among pupils. To Elgar and Amla this same ball had threatened wicked, late movement; to de Villiers it appeared as a long and gentle half-volley. This is more than a different perception, it is a different eye and a different mind. De Villiers went on to make a hundred; a superb, near flawless hundred that set up South Africa's bounceback win after defeat in Durban. More often than not, ABV has played the innings that really matter.
When we watch de Villiers, we see talent and gift collide with application and desire. It is an intoxicating mix, almost overwhelming in the way it allows him to command his opponent
For all his brilliance in green and gold, in pink and in RCB red, it is in white that I have most marvelled at these gifts. Four years ago, in Centurion, South Africa faced Mitchell Johnson at his most fierce and Ryan Harris at his most prolific. Series between these countries are often raw and most certainly not for the faint-hearted; this was to become a classic of its type. Early in the piece Amla received a ball from Johnson that all but decapitated him; Faf du Plessis another that surely would have done so had not his gloves intervened and the ball looped to the hands of slip. At the other end Graeme Smith was given the runaround by Harris, who zipped the ball off the seam to bite at him as if it were a tortured snake. Oddly Harris captured only two wickets in the match, the impressive Peter Siddle three, and Johnson a magnificent 12. As ESPNcricinfo reported at the time, it was not so much that Johnson dismantled the world's No. 1-ranked team; more that he dismembered the South Africans as individuals.
All, bar one. And that one was ABV.
Like Jacques Kallis before him, de Villiers presets himself with the bat held slightly aloft around about stump high. These things trend and change as the game moves through its ages. Right now, many of the best players hold the bat up and a number of them preset with this method, though few have de Villiers' cock of the wrist in the pick-up that then allows him to attack with the blade open and flowing though the line of the ball. Increasingly, modern batsmen set themselves like baseballers, with the left hip cleared and the body and arms ready to strike; thus, a 360-degree field of opportunity emerges. But it is not a technique that can sustain defence and, like it or not,Test cricket will always provide passages of play in which the batsman must protect his wicket.
Here is the point of difference with de Villiers. His initially closed face is lifted barely higher than its original position and is simply dropped back onto the ball to stun its impact into the ground beneath. De Villiers' defensive innings are as fascinating as those in which he contorts, twists, turns and spirals into the most imaginative strokeplay the game has seen. He is a batsman capable of the extreme and frequently applies it - witness 44 balls for 149 against West Indies in a one-day game; 43 off 297 balls against India in a Test match.
In that innings of 91 against Australia in Centurion, while others were all but dismembered, de Villiers was serene: an oasis of calm amidst the slaughter. When the ball was full, he played forward either to block, push or drive; when it was short, he cut, slashed and pulled; when it was somewhere in between, he simply ignored it, watching carefully as it flew by. He barely played and missed, and certainly never mishit. This is not as easy as it sounds. Every batsmen has felt the terrible panic of being caught out of position. It is where your eye, head and brain combine in the hope that their instincts will save your embarrassment. Not once was de Villiers caught out of position. Not once!
His defence, played with hands soft, as if cradling a newborn child and the bat held within them and angled at 45 degrees, saw the ball land softly around the crease. His attack made sure runs were scored at a competitive rate - ten fours were struck and two sixes, each of them sweet.
At the time, I thought that not even Richards, Graeme Pollock or Kallis, South Africa's other titans of the crease, could have played better, or maybe not even so well. It was the innings of an expert, a man at the very peak of his performance. We might as well have called it art, for a canvas was painted while war raged in front of the artists's eye: a canvas so compelling that, privately, a number of the Australian cricketers marvelled.
In this modern era of the game, let's say the last 50 years, the great batsmen have been Sir Garfield Sobers, Pollock, Barry and Viv Richards, Greg Chappell, Sunil Gavaskar, Sachin Tendulkar, Brian Lara and now, de Villiers and Virat Kohli. Behind them, with only the tiniest fractions of distance to contemplate, have been Kallis, Rahul Dravid, Martin Crowe, Javed Miandad, Gordon Greenidge, Ricky Ponting, and in the last third of his career, Graham Gooch. Clearly, this a subjective evaluation but few would argue with its general outlay. Each has their own attraction and myriad attributes. Words to help describe their qualities might include power, flair, touch, timing, hunger, destruction, ruthlessness, grace, naturalness, concentration, balance, longevity, brutality and creativity. It is the last of these that especially suits ABV.
The picture of him in pink, falling to the off side as he sweeps a fast bowler for six during an innings against West Indies of jaw-dropping imagination and effect, is one of the game's great images, illustrating, as it does, how times have changed and how far batting has travelled.
He is iconoclastic through his innovation, puritanical in his disciplines. From these contrasts comes the man who can do it all; the athlete/ball player who has thrown off the shackles of long established assumptions to set a bar for the future that others may strive to emulate but are unlikely to sustain.
The definition of talent continues to confound: we are given gifts but the use of them is the trick. We know of many an unfulfilled talent, and equally, we know of many examples of not much talent making good. But when we watch de Villiers, we see talent and gift collide with application and desire. It is an intoxicating mix, almost overwhelming in the way it allows him to command his opponent. At present only Kohli, who is less eccentric, and for that matter not quite so electric, can match him. Kohli, though, is hungrier, and perhaps more ruthless.
Though sometimes giving the impression of a pained soul within, de Villiers has spread great joy. The outpouring at the news of his retirement was as much at the loss of so free a spirit as at the closing of one man's chapter. It is a rare that a player of games transcends his sport and then reconfigures it as art. To have done so with such humility and good grace, in an age of self-promotion and confrontation, is nothing short of miraculous. But then, that is ABV's batting to a tee.

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel Nine in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK