AB in the eye of a storm

Sunday Times


AS a hellishly hot afternoon surrendered to a sticky evening, the captain of a cricket team tore hither and thither like a dangerously caffeinated Jack Russell terrier.

Gloves and pads marked him out as the wicketkeeper but he was only ever behind the stumps for the nano-second he might need to secure the ball.

For the rest, he zigged here, he zagged there. He had something to say to everyone. And all with his wide eyes flashing panic. Clearly, he didn’t have a cooking clue what he was doing.

It had all been so different on his first-class debut almost 10 years earlier, when he had opened the batting and scored half-centuries in both innings.

“I thought to myself, ‘This oke, he can hurt you as a bowler’,” Alan Dawson, who opened the bowling for the opposition in that match, said of the man who would be captain.

“He kept it simple, he wasn’t flash at all. He was so organised – if there was a bad ball it went for four. It didn’t look like he was exerting himself; it just happened.”

Almost 10 years on the captain had learnt to look like he was exerting himself. His team had scored 301/8 in their 50 overs. He had smacked 52 off 40 balls himself. That was the easy bit.

Now he had to keep a grip on his men as they ripped through their opponents like a rocket through space.

The first wicket fell to the second ball of an innings that soon lurched to 2/4, 3/8, 4/9, 5/9 … it was over in less than two hours: all out for 43. Thanks for coming.

Finally, that captain, who had led a team, any team, for the first time could pause for breath.

“It wasn’t the test I was hoping for, I wasn’t tested at all,” AB de Villiers said after the opening match of Sri Lanka’s one-day series in Paarl on January 11, 2012.

“My real test will come when we’re under pressure. Tonight was really easy but I know it will get a lot harder.”

And how. Next August, after he has lead SA’s test team in away series in Australia and England, De Villiers’ worth as a captain will be known.

“Massive,” was how Dawson described that challenge. Not that he thought De Villiers wasn’t up to it.

“He’s going to play to win,” Dawson said. “That’s the right approach and that’s going to rub off on the team.

“He’s the type of guy you want to impress. The guys won’t want to let him down.”

Which could have been said about De Villiers’ predecessor, Hashim Amla, who got out of the kitchen in the middle of the home series against England last season.

But Dawson saw contrasts: “South Africans like a guy like AB de Villiers, who’s out front. ‘Hash’ is very reserved and doesn’t open up much.”

Did Heino Kuhn think his friend and teammate since childhood was on the brink of the test he was hoping for on  that hot night in Paarl?

“Definitely, especially considering where we are in the rankings,” Kuhn said. “We’ve gone down five spots and quickly.”

But Kuhn was confident De Villiers could fix what was broken: “If there’s one guy who’s capable of turning things around it’s him. We need that. He’ll bring some life back to the Proteas.”

All that said, captains are only as good as their teams. What happens if De Villiers leads like a champ and his side play like chumps?

“He’ll retire from international cricket and go play T20 cricket around the world,” an insider said. “He’s got to make a business decision and he’s good enough to find a job anywhere in the cricket world.”

A storm brews in SA cricket. De Villiers needs to be kept firmly in its eye.

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