TELFORD VICE in London
AB de Villiers doesn’t seem susceptible to being ambushed, but he had nowhere to run nor hide when a couple of photographers snared him in their viewfinders, paparazzi-style, at The Oval on Friday.
“Just a couple of shots, please,” one of them said, motioning for him to pick up the sculptural slab of silver-and-gold gleaming on the table to his right as he walked in for his press conference ahead of yesterday’s match against Sri Lanka.
De Villiers looked slightly taken back at the request, as if he hadn’t noticed the shiny elephant in the room.
Perhaps he hadn’t. He is South African, after all. Ah, so that’s what one these looks like, he might have thought as he held the Champions Trophy itself and posed accordingly.
Reminded that Graeme Smith would refuse to touch a trophy before a tournament, De Villiers quipped, “I’ll take it to him when we win it.”
Whether he will be able to make good on that promise depends on how things went yesterday, and against Pakistan at Edgbaston on Wednesday and India back at The Oval next Sunday.
Nonsense. We all know that South Africa’s tournament starts, like most of them have, in the knockout stage.
How might they fare against, say, England in the semi-finals? Or India in the final?
And how that story is told will depend to an unfair degree on De Villiers’ performance.
Not with a bat in his hands and the world, seemingly, at his feet. He has answered that question many matches and many, many runs ago.
South Africa have always had the players to win tournaments. What they haven’t had are the teams – which are only, in important ways, as good as their captains.
Is De Villiers a good enough captain to go where no South African – not Smith, not Shaun Pollock, not Hansie Cronje – has yet gone: to the podium to collect a trophy his team have earned, not simply to pose with it?
The jury remains out on whether De Villiers is as suited to the role as Faf du Plessis, his test and T20 counterpart.
Du Plessis plainly enjoys pulling his team’s strings. To some, De Villiers looks like he isn’t sure how to untangle the same strings.
When Du Plessis is in charge, changes in the field and discussions with bowlers happen seamlessly. Blink and you’ll miss them.
When De Villiers is at the helm, it can seem as if South Africa hold committee meetings between deliveries.
That, his doubters say, is surely why he has struggled to manage his bowlers efficiently enough to avoid the attentions of the over-rate police.
“Yeah, it’s something we shouldn’t be talking about,” De Villiers said, mindful that he is one more minor infraction away from a ban. “We’ve pinpointed areas where we can get better at it.
“There’s no excuse for getting behind the rate in the first 10 to 15 overs. So we’ve targeted that as an area where we can make up time and get four or five minutes ahead.
“Where it does get a bit complicated us at the end of the innings when there’s a partnership going.
“The game slows down and it’s difficult to set the right fields at the right time.
“But that’s no excuse and it’s something we will get right in this tournament. It’s just non-negotiable.”
Issues like this are among the nuts and bolts of captaincy. The bigger, broader, more important fact is that De Villiers is already South Africa’s most successful ODI captain by the only measure that matters: winning.
He went into yesterday’s game with a century of captaincies to his name. South Africa won 58 of those matches and lost 37, a success ratio of 38.51.
Smith’s ratio was 36.65, Pollock’s 37.32 and Cronje’s 33.24, although we will never know how many of the latter’s matches in charge were manipulated for money and to what degree.
“He’s an exceptional leader,” JP Duminy said of De Villiers. “His biggest strength is that he leads from the front through his performance.
“He doesn’t necessarily have to say much. We as the team will always follow him in terms of what he does and what he says.
“He’s a true asset to South African cricket and if you have him in your team you’re only going to benefit from it.”
That much we have known for years, and it is a factor in the difficulty some South Africans have with the idea of De Villiers as a captain.
As counter intuitive as it seems, De Villiers’ batting brilliance has set the bar impossibly high for him as a leader.
There is no captaincy equivalent of casually flicking a length delivery from the opposition’s best bowler over your shoulder for six.
Thing is, South Africans who have come to expect De Villiers to pull off the feat routinely at the crease expect him to show the same incandescence as a captain.
“It has its challenges, always, being captain of this team, in any of the formats,” De Villiers said, ostensibly about taking up the reins directly from a missing the test series in New Zealand, but with resonance for the bigger picture.
“But I’ve done it for quite a while now and I feel pretty comfortable with that.
“I’ve been well accepted by the side. There are not only one or two leaders on the team; we’ve got four or five really strong leaders and we all have the right to have a voice at times, and we all allow that as a leadership group.
“I’ve never been a kind of leader to come in and to try claim my territory. I feel very comfortable when I come into the side and the culture that we’ve created over the last while allows me to come in and do my thing.”
Go do your thing, AB. But terms and conditions apply: Graeme Smith awaits your knock at his door.