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The true legacy of AB de Villiers

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AB_de_Villiers_South_Africa_Proteas_CricketThe slow clap that had started somewhere in the beer-soaked open east stand of the Wanderers Stadium had now risen to drumroll that reverberated around the ground. AB de Villiers had just struck his 8th six of what was already an innings that defied belief. Now, on 98 from just 30 balls, history beckoned.

Jason Holder loped in and delivered a half-volley outside the off stump, but the ball’s location was inconsequential. De Villiers had already coiled his body and stooped to one knee in preparation for the devastating sweep that sent the ball screaming in to a delirious crowd, recording the fastest hundred in One Day International history.

Watching from the stands that day in January 2015, I wondered if this was the pinnacle of limited overs batting. In all the years before and since, I have never seen hitting so pure. Chris Gayle is a behemoth who monsters balls over the boundary with brute strength. Brendon McCullum’s pugnacious attitude and meaty forearms provided him with the ammunition he needed when assaulting bowlers. Even Virat Kohli, perhaps the destructive batsman who most resembles de Villiers, augments grace and skill with a single-minded will to dominate.

 

De Villiers is something else. Watching him bat is like watching someone unfurl a large sheet of silk with a stick of dynamite concealed within its folds. His movements are liquid, with lightning fast hands and shuffling feet set upon an immovable foundation as the ball is released. What comes next is carnage. When AB is in the mood, he is nothing short of an unrelenting natural disaster; spectacular to behold and impossible to contain.

 

For the life of me, I can’t remember a single delivery in the West Indies’ chase. South Africa won the match by 148 runs – one run short of de Villiers’ personal tally from just 44 balls – but the result was merely a footnote. The number of jaws scraping along Corlett Drive after the match had all been put there by one man’s exploits.

But as I left the ground I couldn’t shake the nagging voice that had crept to the back of my mind. Chalk it up to the cynical Protea fan that I am but I had to know what de Villiers’ knock was worth.

Apart from the recording the fastest ODI 50, the fastest ODI 100 and the most sixes in an ODI innings, this exhibition was put on in a relatively meaningless match against a distinctly average side. None of this mattered, the voice in my head reminded me, unless de Villiers won us a World Cup.

Barring yet another dramatic video released on his personal app next year, de Villiers will not be the man to rid South Africa of the ‘chokers’ tag that has become synonymous with the Proteas in global tournaments.  

 

“After the fantastic series wins against India and Australia, now feels like the right time to step aside,” de Villiers said in the video that changed international cricket. “Cricket fans around the world, thank you for your kindness and generosity and, today, for your understanding.”

 

Just like that, one of the true greats of the game had called time on a remarkable career.

When I had gathered myself, I sent a message to the little voice that doubted the merits of de Villiers’ innings against the West Indies three years ago. Without the prospect of a World Cup, has his position in the pantheon of cricket’s immortals been undermined? This time, the voice and I were in agreement.

In a sport obsessed with numbers and triumphs, Abraham Benjamin de Villiers leaves behind a legacy that transcends them all. It is what he made us feel that will endure.

 

He earned his moniker ‘Mr 360’ by exploiting the full use of the crease in an unorthodox approach that is now the standard for modern batting. He hit bowlers where he wanted to hit them. He made captains set fields he wanted them to set. No other batsman in world cricket has ever pulled the strings of the opposition like de Villiers.

 

With a warm smile never far from his face, de Villiers made his extraordinary feats relatable. Sure, pulling Mitchell Johnson in front of square is not something most of us will ever do, but by allowing his humanity to shine through, de Villiers offered us a window in to his genius. We were never treated to whirling cover drives and flailing cut shots alone. Between the artistry emerged a recognisable everyman, who just so happened to be blessed with incomprehensible brilliance.

Every generation of cricket fans is in a constant state of competition with those who follow. The old codgers who were lucky enough to see Viv Richards or Graeme Pollock in the flesh have an unattainable trump card in their pocket. The same goes for fans who worshiped at the altars of Sachin Tendulkar, Brian Lara and Ricky Ponting.

De Villiers deserves to be spoken of in the same breath as these giants. Anyone who witnessed the bat speed, the audacious shots and the flawless timing, has an immutable trump card of their own.

De Villiers doesn’t have a global trophy to show his grandchildren and he could not break the 10,000 run ceiling in either Tests or ODIs. This is a player who dealt in the intangible for 14 years and made our lives all the richer for it, despite our inabilities to adequately encapsulate what he meant.

 

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Daniel is a freelance sports journalist from Johannesburg who would always rather be watching Test ...

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