TELFORD VICE, Durban
NOBODY laughed when a funny thing happened after the first drinks break in the test series between South Africa and New Zealand at Kingsmead on Friday.
This followed Dean Elgar daring to drive with uncommon dash at Doug Bracewell, and splintering a catch to second slip.
That marked the fall of the second wicket. Down the stairs and across the boundary skipped … Not AB de Villiers.
Neither was De Villiers part of any other stage of the innings, and that for only the third time in the 109 tests South Africa have played since he made his debut in December 2004.
Almost a dozen years of shimmering excellence have been ended by an elbow injury that has precluded him from playing in the series.
How big is the AB-shaped hole?
South Africa have won 15 tests in which De Villiers has scored a century. How many have they lost when he has made a hundred? One.
They have have won only two tests when De Villiers has been dismissed without scoring, most memorably at Centurion in January when Stuart Broad and James Anderson did him for ducks in both innings.
That makes the AB-shaped hole easily as big as the one that gapes in the ozone layer, metaphorically at least.
But the certainty offered by numbers is negated by the magic of a game that seems to delight in turning facts and figures into shapeless nonsense.
De Villiers is about as valuable to South Africa as a piece of string is long, give or take a metre or three in either direction.
In other words, who knows how much he really means to the national cause?
“He’s a huge member of our test line-up,” Faf du Plessis said. “But even if you look at his statistics over the last while …”
De Villiers scored no centuries and averaged 33.42 in eight tests against India and England last season, six of which South Africa lost. Overall, he averages 50.46.
“India definitely had a huge effect on all of us,” Du Plessis said in mitigation.
Kane Williamson had no reason to tread so carefully. Rather, as New Zealand’s captain he had a responsibility to remind South Africa how big the hole is.
“Any team that did have AB de Villiers and now doesn’t, it’s not a great thing,” Williamson said. “He’s the best player in the world.”
Players like De Villiers are exceptions the game over, but particularly so in a culture in which common cause is valued over precociousness.
He stands out not only because he is the most gifted player of his generation but also because he has risen above the already high levels reached, often almost in unison, by a raft of compatriots.
De Villiers is president, secretary and treasurer of a club in which he is the only member. He makes the extraordinary look extra ordinary.
So, while that elbow heals, we will have to put up with watching the merely extraordinary.
How did the opposition’s bowlers feel about that?
Tim Southee’s grin said it all. For good measure he added, “It’s nice.”