Leading Edge: From cheers to tears for AB

Sunday Times


TELFORD VICE, Durban

TALENT makes me cry. I don’t care who knows it. A splash of Jackson Pollock’s No. 8 in the right light, a dash of John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” in the right silence, a flash of a Zaha Hadid building in the right kind of moonshine, a crash of words from Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” in the right frame of madness, the ash of Patti Smith’s voice anytime, anywhere can all lead to a welling in these eyes. Don’t know why. Born that way.

That, as you might imagine, can lead to awkward moments in pressboxes, bars and grandstands crowded with hearts that thump with calculated coldness or competitiveness rather than romance. I’m the one in sunglasses and with the hat pulled low over over my brow.

AB de Villiers, then, has made me shed more than a few tears over the past 11 years.

His talent is beyond the orthodox and the unorthodox. He isn’t about pretty or beautiful strokeplay. What he does is neither clinical nor surgical.

What De Villiers isn’t is easier to describe than what he is. But here’s an attempt.

He is about as far from ye old crack of leather on willow as it is possible to venture within the constraints of cricket, and sometimes outside of them. He shows cricket what it could be if only it would free itself from the idiocies of tradition and convention. He is the future.

Which makes the fact that he will retire worrying and sad in equal measure. And that is a fact. Whatever the suits did or did not say or do this week in their comically clumsy attempts to manage the message once the toothpaste that De Villiers was considering calling it quits, at least partly, was out of the tube, the truth is that he is far closer to the dusk of his career than the dawn.

Or, as Russell Domingo said this week, “We all want AB to play ’til he’s 50 but that’s not going to happen.”

Damn straight. But when De Villiers was given the opportunity in a television interview to quell speculation that he was on his way out, he did not take it.

“It left a lot of doubt,” Graeme Smith said on the BBC’s Test Match Special about De Villiers equivocation. “If he is struggling with his workload it just makes the decision to make him keep wicket in this test even more ridiculous. My sense is that there’s a few rumblings in the South African camp at the moment.”

Definitely. But let’s take this from whence it comes; from a man whose musings about making a test comeback were met by selection convenor Linda Zondi reminding everyone concerned that anyone who plays first-class franchise cricket in SA is eligible for the test squad. In short, pad up or shut up.

Whatever. The fact is that sooner rather than later, Abraham Benjamin de Villiers will reach the end of his beginning and try to get on with being a husband and a father and living a life more real than the lucrative lunacy that is trying to keep all the balls – tests, one-day internationals, Twenty20 internationals, Indian Premier League, Whatever Else Premier League, perchance a franchise match every few years – in the air. Even for him, that is too much to manage for too long.

De Villiers will leave behind a game that is so much better for his coming. Whether cricket will learn the lessons he leaves is an unfair question. How, exactly, do those blessed with orthodoxy, unorthodoxy, who play pretty or beautiful strokes, and who are clinical at the crease, learn the magic of genius?

Just as Jackson Pollock didn’t produce a colouring book and Patti Smith doesn’t do karaoke, so the thought of De Villiers leaving us with something as unoriginal as a list of instructions on how to bat like he does is dead in the water.

Soon, perhaps, there will be fewer tears.

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