South African captains have generally been through the mill at World Cups – the deep pain of Graeme Smith in 2011, Shaun Pollock’s stunned expression in 2003, Hansie Cronje’s tears at Edgbaston in 1999 are all still vivid memories – so it was wonderful to see AB de Villiers enjoy a glorious day at the Sydney Cricket Ground yesterday.
Just five weeks after lashing 149 off 44 balls against the West Indies at the Wanderers – his 31-ball century being the fastest in ODI history – De Villiers made 162 not out off 66 deliveries to destroy the same side at another great cathedral of the game.
In the process, the South African captain reached 150 off a record 64 balls, and De Villiers now holds the records for the fastest 50, century and 150 in ODI history, sealing his status as one of the greatest batsmen to have ever played limited-overs cricket.
The Sydney Cricket Ground rose as one for De Villiers after one of the most scintillating displays of batting ever seen on the global stage, and the likeable 31-year-old now has a beautiful World Cup memory to cherish, replacing the nasty scenes of 2011 when New Zealand substitute Kyle Mills was shouting in his face after a mix up with Faf du Plessis accelerated a South African collapse.
In terms of batting excellence, De Villiers’ innings ticked all the boxes.
He came in under pressure with South Africa having lost both set batsmen, Hashim Amla and Du Plessis, for solid half-centuries in the space of three deliveries from Chris Gayle. De Villiers weathered that storm and was able to rotate the strike for the impressive Rilee Rossouw to capitalise on his own brisk start.
It was only once Rossouw had been dismissed – for a momentum-changing 61 off 39 balls – that De Villiers really took the game away from the West Indies.
There was tremendous skill, innovation, some brute force, wonderful placement and brilliant thinking in De Villiers’ innings. Probably the most impressive feature of his batting is the amount of time he has, even against the quick bowlers, to get any delivery away to the area he has pre-identified as a scoring region.
To say that De Villiers has a tremendous eye for the ball is a bit like saying Imran Tahir (South Africa’s best bowler in the tournament) likes to acknowledge taking a wicket with some sort of celebration; combine that with quick feet, lovely wrists, superb timing and placement, plus tactical nous, and bowling to AB becomes a nightmare for even the best bowlers.
For me, there are probably two more things I’d like to see AB de Villiers do.
One is obviously play the match-winning innings in the World Cup final.
For the other, I’m going to dig up the legend of Barry Richards, arguably the greatest South African batsman ever.
The destructive power of Graeme Pollock, the prolific elegance of Jacques Kallis and the silky skills of Hashim Amla all feature in that debate, but for sheer brilliance in being able to fashion any stroke for any ball, Richards and De Villiers probably come out tops.
In the days of Richards, there was no international cricket for South Africans and the club game was of a very high standard, with provincial players in action most of the time. The legend goes that Richards, bored of the humdrum challenges of plundering hundreds, sometimes used to make it more interesting by only using the side of the bat. And the pitches were generally quite juicy in Natal club cricket.
On one famous occasion at the Collegians Club in Pietermaritzburg, Richards used the side of the bat for an over bowled with the new ball by Pat Trimborn, who played four Tests for South Africa!
Given the extraordinary brilliance of De Villiers, perhaps he should take on the bowlers with only the side of the bat just to even the contest a bit!