TELFORD VICE, Cape Town
AB de Villiers has a fresh autobiography on the shelves, a tome fat with the impressive ordinariness of a man who happens to be an extraordinary player.
But not one word of it is relevant to what De Villiers is in the public consciousness right now. For that we have to go back to 1899, when a poem by Hughes Mearns was first published.
The opening lines of “Antigonish” are: “Yesterday, upon the stair,/I met a man who wasn’t there.”
De Villiers, who isn’t there with South Africa as they prepare to claim a hat-trick of test series wins in Australia, is that man.
And you can be sure that the closer we get to the first test at the WACA on November 3, the more those South African players who are there will meet De Villiers on the stair – in the shape of questions about what his absence will mean to their cause.
He isn’t there because of an elbow injury, which also kept him out of South Africa’s one-day series against the Australians. A series, mind, that South Africa won 5-0, albeit against a weakened attack.
But still, how the hell did that happen?
“The one-day side has grown into a really good team,” former South African coach Gary Kirsten said. “We’re on fire and playing like we know we can play.
“Our top six is very powerful and we’ve got some great allrounders coming through, a quality spinner in Imran Tahir, and some young players who are really showing their worth.
“Guys like Rilee Rossouw, who we know has potential, has started to fire. A lot of guys who were bubbling under are starting to feel comfortable in that space.
“Throw in AB de Villiers and you start getting to a stage where you ask who you’re going to leave out. It’s a tough decision.
“There are four or five potential matchwinners in that top six. Players like Quinton de Kock, Rossouw and David Miller are starting to put in matchwinning performances without having to rely on AB de Villiers or Hashim Amla to do it.”
Now for the hard part …
“With our test team we’re not quite sure what we’re going to get,” Kirsten said. “That’s alright – every team goes through cycles and it takes longer for people to settle in test cricket.
“We’re still asking questions of the test match side. There’ll be no greater place to answer those questions.
“Australia will have a stronger team because they’re going to get a couple of those fast bowlers back and they play really well at home.
“But we’ve had some great tours there. We’re not intimidated by those conditions and that environment anymore. When I was playing we were intimidated. Under Graeme Smith we moved away from that.”
Smith, the only captain to have engineered South African test series victories in Australia, in 2008-09 and 2012-13, led like a loose forward.
He was comfortable with the crash and bash of confrontation, and he had a personality to match.
This time, also because of De Villiers’ absence, South Africa will be in the altogether more refined hands of Faf du Plessis.
“When he was introduced into the leadership space it was on the back of knowing that he’s got some of the required qualities,” Kirsten said of Du Plessis.
“He’s a natural leader, he’s got an endearing personality, and he’s got an empathy for other people.
“He’s also got some strong belief in his own ability.
“The guys respect him and warm to him.
“But he likes to be his own leader. He certainly doesn’t want to be cloned as a leader who fits into anyone’s pattern.
“He’s also a very good listener. He’s prepared to take on counsel or other ideas. He accepts that there are other ways of looking at things.”
Mearns’ poem about the man who wasn’t there concludes thus: “He wasn’t there again today/Oh, how I wish he’d go away …”
South Africans won’t wish that about De Villiers, but they are less anxious than they might have been that he isn’t there.