AB de Villiers

The beginning of the end

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RIP Test cricket, crushed by a huge pile of money

“There have been a few rumours floating around,” said AB de Villiers.

The nation relaxed. At last the awful speculation would end, and in a second we would hear the good news. The rumours were media speculation. The rumours were a dressing-room joke misheard by a journalist. The rumours were mind games cooked up by touring English. All was well.

And then he finished his sentence.

“…and in most rumours there is always a little bit of truth.”

Say what now? Had AB de Villiers, national treasure, really just admitted that he had been considering retiring from international cricket? It was like phoning your mum to say hi and her mentioning that the cat had run away again, oh, and she and your dad were planning to emigrate.

A choked, childlike “Why?” hung over South African cricket for a moment. De Villiers went on. There were “big tournaments going on around the world”, he told the press conference, and some of them couldn’t be ignored “because financially they make a huge difference in our lives, and obviously you’ve got to look after that side of it as well.”

Obviously. The word was faintly shocking. We expect footballers to talk about grubby things like money and to take that subtly exasperated tone that rich people use when they talk about trying to get richer (“I mean, I got kids to feed, you know?”); but cricketers? Don’t proper chaps play solely for the love of the game and to earn the respect of other chaps?

Surprise soon eased into denial. There had to be more to the story than met the eye. Had to be. When De Villiers was given the captaincy, we nodded and said, Yep, that was it: his statement had been a cunning power play. Give me the top job or I walk. Well played, AB.

We calmed down. We told ourselves that De Villiers was going nowhere. We explained to each other that incredible hitters don’t just walk away from international cricket.

But nobody believed it. Not deep down. Because, of course, it’s already happened.

I’ve never been a fan of Chris Gayle. I can see the superficial appeal of his destructive batting, but I’ve always found it cynical; a performance he chooses to turn on or not, depending on his mood. Certainly, too many of his big Test scores were made against weak attacks or on flat tracks. But I concede that Gayle has one gift almost unmatched in modern cricket.

Viv Richards could read flight. Brian Lara could read length. But nobody has read the writing on the wall quite as early as Gayle. If Gayle has ever shown a flash of genius, it was surely the moment he understood – before most of the other players of his day – that the future of cricket was in franchises rather than countries.

Gayle is by no means the first Test star to be lured into luminous pyjamas by huge amounts of cash. Forty years ago the cricket establishment was stamping on its top hat in frustrated rage, glaring at upstart Australian Kerry Packer and his World Series. The parallels with today are striking: top players choosing cash over country; cricket marketed as an evening of glitzy entertainment rather than an austere, five-day Victorian ritual; despair over the inevitable death of Test cricket.

But Gayle, the Indian Premier League and Australia’s Big Bash League are different to World Series cricket in one fundamental respect.

For Packer, the World Series was never the end goal. Today we remember it as a revolutionary event in the sport’s history, but we forget that it only happened because Packer couldn’t get what he really wanted: broadcasting rights to Australian Test cricket. World Series Cricket might have invented day-night cricket and dragged players into the professional era, but it was ultimately a petulant “up yours” to the big boys; a rich kid picking up his ball and going home because nobody wanted to play with him.

Two years later Packer finally won his precious rights, and promptly pulled the plug on World Series. What Australians wanted when they switched on the telly was white flannel and red ball; and Packer wanted to give them exactly what they loved.

It was the players who kept that love alive in Australia: the last greats of the 1970s; the strugglers of the 1980s; the new titans of the 1990s. For all their toughness and sledging, every one of them was entranced by the romance of the five-day game.

But Gayle is different. He is the prototype of a new breed of player, one who apparently feels very little for Test cricket; who is not an Australian or South African or Indian but simply a performer who knows his worth; who understands that he has only a few years in which to make his millions; and who plans to wring every dollar out of the game he has mastered.

Indeed, it’s not surprising that cricket’s first true mercenary is a West Indian. The West Indies are not a national team. At their most cohesive, in the 1980, they were the embodiment of a regional ideology. At their worst, in the 2000s, they were a confederation of malcontents. Without a shared nationhood to bind them together, and with a losing culture sapping all the pleasure out of the game, it was inevitable that the bonds of nationalistic zeal – of patriotism – would fray first.

On the face of it, these observations should comfort Proteas fans. De Villiers is not only a South African, and therefore still steeped in old world notions of patriotism, duty and gees, but he is a famously dedicated team player, and, as of January, the captain. He seems to be the antitheses of Gayle; the last man you’d expect to play for pay rather than pride.

The trouble is, pride only takes you so far.

De Villiers has been frank about what he wants to achieve. Years ago he declared he wanted to be the best batsman in the world. When he was appointed captain, he said it was the realization of a lifelong dream. For a driven, ambitious man like De Villiers, milestones and accolades are sustenance. They not only motivate, but they give shape to a career, turning it from an amorphous blob (“Played for South Africa from 2004 to 2019”) into a distinctive narrative with highs and lows, light and shadow.

De Villiers has just turned 32. There’s still plenty of time for him to rack up all sorts of extraordinary records. There’s no reason why he couldn’t claim the highest individual Test and ODI scores for himself. He’s also got one more shot at a World Cup win, in England in 2019.

The problem is, though, that champion cricketers don’t only want the whiz-bang records that get broken on a single day. They want the slow-burning ones too; the big, potent records that speak to endurance and consistent excellence year after year: most runs, most wickets, most wins…And unfortunately most of those records – the sort that might keep De Villiers interested – are probably already out of his reach.

It’s basic arithmetic. South Africa will simply not play enough Tests over the next half-decade to give De Villiers a shot at the endurance records. Even if he doesn’t miss a Test for the next five years, he’s likely to fall well short of Sachin Tendulkar’s 15,921 runs; and he’s taken over the reins too late (and with too weak a bowling attack) to challenge Graeme Smith’s record for most wins by a South African captain.

Given these realities, how difficult must it be to commit yourself to another five or six years of nets and shuttle runs and buses and press conferences and camps and more shuttle runs and more buses and interviews and yet more buses, knowing that you can’t end up with your name at the top of all the columns? How can you not start looking east to the IPL or the Big Bash, awash in hard currency, and wonder how much longer you’ve got? When does the window start closing? Do you push past 35 and hope your knees and eyes can still earn you a few million a year, or do you go the Gayle route, and make hay – and millions – while the sun shines? Yes, you love representing your country, but if you’re 32 you’ve only got another six or seven years in which to earn the money that’s going to see you through the next sixty. It seems a mad question but you’ve got to ask: at what point does playing Test cricket become a financial handicap?

In January it was De Villiers doing the asking, but right now dozens of Test stars are wondering the same thing. Some have already made up their minds: Brendon McCullum has retired from international cricket at 34. Many more will follow in the coming years. (For the record, my money is on De Villiers giving up Tests in 2018 and ODIs after the World Cup in 2019.)

All of which brings us, rather oddly, to the ICC World Twenty20 bash, arriving amid a school of minnows on March 8, as Zimbabwe take on Hong Kong and Scotland face up to Afghanistan.

When the tournament debuted nine years ago, most pundits viewed it with a mixture of disdain and horror. Snobbery was only partly to blame: T20 cricket, still relatively new, was largely unwatchable. Nobody knew what a good score was, and batsmen flailed at everything or got out trying. Captains set fields by guesswork. Spectators were uneasy, unsure if they were supposed to party for forty solid overs or if they were allowed to sit and focus on the strategy.

Since then the format has figured itself out, becoming if not more sophisticated then at least more formalized. It has even managed to grow something resembling a very short history: we now have a vague memory of one or two memorable innings; a couple of standout bowling spells; a thrilling finish here and there. Slowly, T20 is transforming from the shameful love-child of marketing hacks and cricketing sell-outs into a sport with its own lore, and above all, its own fans.

For traditionalists like me, that is superficially reassuring. We want the young upstart to grow up as fast as possible. We want its rough edges to be smoothed, its juvenile aggression to mellow into more mature forms of attack. We want, in short, to draw T20 into the grand traditions of cricket; to install it as a sort of naughty younger brother to Tests and ODIs – a cheeky ruffian that is good for a laugh but which ultimately defers to the more traditional formats.

Of course, that’s not going to happen. And those of us who believe in a Victorian hierarchy of cricketing virtue, with Tests at the top and T20 at the bottom, are about to be brushed aside as dismissively as Chris Gayle plonking a half-tracker into the second tier. Because we’ve badly misread the state of the game.

The World Twenty20 might have “ICC” ahead of its name and feature national teams, but what purists need to understand is that it isn’t a World Cup. It isn’t even a competition. It’s a stall set up in the middle of a marketplace, a pop-up shop where the best hitters in the world take on the best anti-hitters (because that’s what bowlers have become), and try to catch they eye of franchise money men. All vying to become like Granddaddy Gayle, the millionaire who figured it out first.

When stars like De Villiers start leaving Tests and ODIs toward the end of this decade, those formats will die astonishingly quickly. When that happens, many fans will want to blame the players and accuse them of all sorts of things. Some may even quote Kerry Packer’s crude proposition to the Australian Cricket Board back in 1976: “There’s a little bit of the whore in all of us, gentleman. What’s your price?”

But moralizing and finger pointing will be useless. Because when it comes to 20-over franchise cricket – the future – it’s really not personal. It’s just business.

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Published in Business Day Sport

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Damned lies and cricket ratings

ratingsWhen Australian batting star Steven Smith leap-frogged from fourth to claim the top spot in the ICC’s official ranking of Test batsmen this week, it felt like heresy.

It wasn’t the size of the leap, but rather the players he surpassed to become the first Australian since Michael Clarke in 2012 to seize the crown. When you knock off demigods like Kumar Sangakkara, AB de Villiers and Hashim Amla in one fell swoop, the faithful are going to get antsy.

As startling as it seemed, Smith’s surge up the rankings was inevitable. The ratings tend to reward consistency, and Smith has been on a blinder over the last year. His last eight Tests have produced 1226 runs at 102.16, with five hundreds and five fifties – evidence of a man with a Bradmanian passion for occupying the crease. In some respects he’s already surpassed the Australian god of cricket: the 769 runs he made against India late last year broke Bradman’s 67-year-old record for the most ever in a series of four or fewer Tests. Not bad for a player who was initially earmarked as an all-rounder offering some useful leg-spin.

Smith’s avalanche of runs was bound to light up the ICC’s algorithms, and they have rewarded him with a cumulative rating of 913 points and the temporary title of the world’s best Test batsman.

The trouble with the ratings, though, is that they tend to be much better at showing form than class. The moment you start comparing players from different eras, even from different seasons, they start to look rather silly.

For example, the all-time ratings reveal that Smith has surpassed any total ever accumulated by either Brian Lara or Sachin Tendulkar. Indeed, according to the official ratings, Tendulkar – widely believed to be the second-greatest batsman after Bradman – never even passed 900 points.

Nobody can deny that Smith is a superb player. At just 26 he could yet become a giant over the next decade. He’s unflappable, a good tourist, and apparently at ease anywhere in the batting order. But is his current run really better than any string of glorious performances ever put together by Lara and Tendulkar? Pull the other one.

The algorithms reportedly try to incorporate the quality of the opposition when awarding points, but here, again, they seem to have stumbled. The Indian attack Smith dismantled in Australia was distinctly ordinary, buying wickets at almost 53 apiece; and as for the West Indian bowlers he’s just demolished, well, if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.

But perhaps the main problem with the ratings is that they encourage fans to disparage achievements of new stars to protect the luster of past or current greats. By going to number one, Smith has made us all jump to the defense of De Villiers or Amla or Lara or Tendulkar; whereas without computer-generated lists we might be more inclined to sit back and enjoy the rise of one of cricket’s next superstars.

We certainly don’t need lists to tell us that AB de Villiers is still the best batsman in the world. Everyone in the game knows it, including Smith. South African fans can relax and remember: when it comes to cricket, there are lies, damned lies, and the ICC player rankings.

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First published in The Times

2015: A SPACE ODYSSEY

Pic: Sunday Times LifestyleI know how West Indian bowlers feel. I tried to pin down AB de Villiers for a week and got absolutely nowhere.

My brief was straightforward. Do an in-depth interview with the mercurial middle-order star. Show us the man behind the legend, the bloke behind the scoring machine who reached 7 000 runs in One Day Internationals faster than anyone in history. I emailed the Proteas media liaison with the naïve enthusiasm of a young Caribbean bowler running in to bowl the first over of the morning: with a bit of luck, I thought, this could be in the bag by the first drinks break. The liaison was optimistic that we could find twenty free minutes for a phone-call.

And then De Villiers bludgeoned, walloped, spanked, thrashed and cudgeled 149 off 44 balls in Johannesburg, and overnight went from being a beloved golden boy to an untouchable golden god. Optimistic emails became hedged, then apologetic, and then nonexistent. I wasn’t going to talk to AB after all.

At first I was disappointed. There was so much I wanted to ask him. Where does he go from here? 150 off 43 balls? How does his impossible niceness affect his ability to sledge? (“Call yourself world-class? You’re merely one of the top three talents in your beautiful and culture-rich country!”) But as I watched South Africa steamroll the West Indies into a small maroon puddle in the ODI series, a new thought occurred to me: AB de Villiers deserves better than a sports interview.

We’ve all endured them.

Q: You won the game. How are you feeling?

A: Ja, a lot of credit to the guys, they dug deep and gave 110 percent.

A lot of pressure on you to win the next match?

Ja, a lot of pressure on us to win the next match, for sure.

How are you going to win the next match?

We’re going to dig deep and give 110 percent.

What keeps you motivated?

I like digging deep. And obviously giving 110 percent.

No. Someone who can score at three runs a ball shouldn’t be tied to the laws of journalistic reality. It would have been a crime – vivisection by cliché – to impose the banality of interview on a man whose batting is pure fantasy. And so I decided to conduct an interview with AB de Villiers in a parallel universe in which sports writers can ask anything and sports stars are free to speak their minds. This, then, is the interview I never had with a South African superstar.

TE: Let’s first talk about your incredible record.

ABdV: Thanks, but it’s not really a record, just some songs on YouTube. But the fans seem to like them.

I was thinking more of your status as cricket’s current superstar. Your average over the last few months is mind-boggling.

Thanks, but I don’t really know what that means.

You don’t?

“Average” isn’t in my vocabulary.

So what do you call your records?

I don’t call them. They just come to me.

Oh very good!

Thanks.

On current form you’re the best batsman in the world, but how did it all start? How did the boy become the superstar?

Ag, you know, it was a pretty standard start. My planet was dying and my parents stuffed me in into an escape-capsule, punched in the co-ordinates for Earth, and the rest is history. Well, except that the capsule disintegrated around me as I came through the atmosphere and the heat kind of burnt off my exoskeleton, so that’s why I look human.

We saw you play some outrageous shots during your amazing knock at the Wanderers. The World Cup starts in a fortnight. Can we expect any new shots?

Absolutely. I’m working on something called The Shank, where I leave my crease slightly, well, a lot, actually. Basically I run down the pitch, snap the bowler’s leg, remove his tibia, whittle it with my teeth into the shape of a bat, and then run back into my crease to loft him back over his head for seven.

Six, you mean.

Hey guy, don’t ride your defeatist small-picture thinking into my mental hacienda.

Sorry. But doesn’t the bowler see you coming? And how can he bowl a ball with no shin-bone?

It all happens really fast. You’ve heard the expression “quick hands and feet”? That.

I must apologize in advance for the next question. I’m sure you and the team are all tired of answering it, but it’s something that’s haunted South African cricket for years now.

“How does Faf get his hair to stay so perfect even when he’s been sweating under a helmet for hours?” I know, it’s weird.

No, I mean the issue of choking at World Cups. I’m sorry to bring it up, but it’s something that’s going to be talked about a lot over the next month. So what are your thoughts on choking?

Ja look, it’s a metaphor I don’t really understand because I don’t ever choke.

I know, you always deliver under pressure and you’ve hauled the team out of some really bad –

No, I mean, I am physically unable to choke. My throat can expand to seventeen times the diameter of a human throat. On my home planet this adaptation allows us to feast on the giant eggs of the Eagle-Iguanas that haunt the high plains of X’arrqh, but it’s also great in cricket because it means I can inhale 3000% more oxygen than anyone else. But having said that, yes, the Proteas have a patchy record in World Cups and we’re working hard to remedy that.

Any specific game plan?

Derp. Score more runs than them. Flip man, sports writing is sheltered employment hey?

Sorry I asked. It’s just that a lot of fans are wondering how you cope with being both the mainstay of the batting effort and the wicket-keeper. It must be incredibly demanding on your body. How do you keep so fit?

Actually the problem is staying less fit. My metabolism is very – OK, look, the physiology is complex, but in a nutshell I’m powered by a small neutron star. If I trained like normal athletes the star would explode, destroying all matter, and frankly I’m saving that outcome for in case we ever get into a corner in a Test series against Australia. So essentially to play international cricket I have to spend a lot of time eating pizza and cookie dough and lying in front of the TV.

Any favourite shows?

Game of Thrones. It’s basically a 40-hour batting clinic.

But isn’t it just graphic violence and – oh, I see. Right. Who’s your favourite character in Game of Thrones?

Faf du Plessis.

He’s not in Game of Thrones.

Have you scored 16 000 international runs and the fastest ODI hundred of all time?

OK, sure, now that you mention it, I really liked Faf in Season 3. Moving on. I know the fans are eager to know more about your life off the field, you know, the man behind legend? On your personal website you list a few favourites. Could we talk through them to give the fans a bit more insight into AB the man?

Sure.

So first up, you famously received a medal from Nelson Mandela for a school science project.

Ja, it was a miniature volcano I made in Standard 6.

Oh those are awesome, where you make the cone out of papiermâché and then make it fizz with –

No, it was an actual miniaturized volcano. I carved granite into the shape of a caldera and then injected it with magma at vast pressure. Madiba was very impressed.

You say your favourite movies are Gladiator and A River Runs Through It. The common theme in both is, of course, flies, whether on fishing lures or open wounds. Would you say you enjoy a lot of fly-related art?

No.

OK, let’s move on. Apparently you’re scared of snakes. What exactly about them scares you?

Their teeth. Who did you say your work for again?

Sorry, that was a silly question.

Yes. Yes it was. Maybe ask questions I haven’t already answered on my website.

OK. Um. What’s you’re favourite book?

Hm. I think my favourite book is the rule book. I like to set it on fire with a flame-thrower as I ride past on a grizzly bear.

And when you’re not eating pudding to keep you in shape or actually playing? How do you like to unwind?

I’m actually quite a conventional guy, so I guess I like playing golf with mates, catching up on some series, maybe reading a thriller, playing my guitar, sword-fighting, kite-surfing on the backs of manta-rays, you know, stuff like that. Oh, I also really enjoy cage diving with sharks.

I haven’t done it but apparently it’s a rush.

Totally. They put some Great Whites in a cage and then I dive into the sea next to them and try to get into the cage using nothing but my teeth. It’s rad.

If you could travel back in time and talk to 10-year-old AB, what would you tell him?

I’d say “Calm down, little AB! Stop screaming! I know it’s freaky that a grownup version of yourself just materialized in your bedroom from the future, but I’m here to tell you important facts about the mid-1990s, mostly TV spoilers about what happens to Ross and Rachel and why The X-Files runs out of steam towards the end.”

What are your favourite qualities in a human being?

Forgiveness. You should always forgive people. Except if they are bowlers. Then you must destroy them and sow salt into their run-ups as you listen to the lamentations of their women. Oh, and hope. I love hope. I love to watch it draining out of the eyes of the fielding team as I reverse-paddle a fast yorker for seven over the ‘keeper’s head.

Where do you go from here?

Into space.

No, I meant it more as a rhetorical –

I don’t deal with rhetoric. I deal with facts. And my next mission is to go into space. Do you know how far you can hit a cricket ball in a zero-gravity vacuum? I’ve carved a little message onto a cricket ball with my teeth. It says “Stay away from Earth if you value your shin-bones.” Stephen Hawking estimates there could be billions of life forms out there and not all are going to be friendly.

So you’re…you want to…protect the Earth from, what, predatory extraterrestrial bowlers?

You learn fast.

And how are you going to get into space?

Ag, you know. The normal way. Put on something warmish, a fleece or a jersey or something, and then jump.

Jump. Into space.

Ja, a standing jump.

That seems unlikely.

That innings at the Wanderers seemed unlikely, and yet here we are.

Touche. AB de Villiers, it’s been a pleasure. You are not only a superstar but a gentleman too. Long may you…AB? Hello? Hello AB?

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First published in Sunday Times Lifestyle.