The makings of a legend

2013-11-16 00:00

AT last the gods of golf have thrown my ailing game a crumb. Last Saturday morning I made a hole in one at the fifth hole of the Royal Johannesburg West course. We were playing a match against the Divots of Durban Country Club. This is always a jovial encounter and my playing partners seemed even more pleased than I was at my good fortune.

It was in fact the fifth ace of my golf career, which is close to its 60th year. This puts into perspective the freakish nature of the occurrence, but my feeling on each of these five occasions has been the same mixture of pleasure and wonderment at how simple the feat seemed to have been.

One aimed the ball at the hole and in it went. The effort exercised was minimal and the outcome was entirely as desired. For just a brief moment I dwelt in that blissful zone occupied by gifted athletes when operating at the peak of their powers. This time it occurred to me that this is what AB de Villiers must experience nearly every time he settles into an innings.

He must be one of the most gifted batsmen ever to play for South Africa. He is up there with the very best of my generation, Graeme Pollock and Barry Richards, who both made batting look ridiculously easy. AB, however, has yet to reach with consistency the heights of achievement that would entitle his name to be mentioned in conjunction with those two batting giants of South African cricket.

On figures alone, he is only the fourth best batsmen in the current Test team. This may be one of the reasons why the Proteas are the best Test team in the world, but the truth of the matter is that AB has the ability to be the most dominating batsman of the next decade. A destiny that would befit his outrageous talent.

Will he achieve such heights? The current answer is probably in the negative for several reasons. The first is that, as long as he spends about half of every match keeping wicket, he simply will not have the mental resources to play enough of the long innings that will set him alongside the likes of Pollock and Richards.

If the selectors want AB to be the very best batsman that he can be, they will have to sacrifice his wicketkeeping. This will never be an easy decision because in his present roles AB is critical to that balance of the team that enables the Proteas to hang onto their number one Test status.

Clearly, Andrew Hudson is hoping that Quinton de Kock will come through quickly enough in all forms of the game to release AB from his ’keeping responsibilities. The young man is making important strides this summer, but he is some distance from the finished article.

Secondly, no captain in history, with the possible exception of Don Bradman, has been able to marry the roles of great batsman and successful Test captain. There is no reason to believe that AB has the personality to succeed where the likes of Tendulkar, Ponting and Lara have failed.

Truly great batsmen have to possess a single-mindedness that is freed from the clutter and distractions of other responsibilities. It is impossible for a Test captain to divorce himself from the multitude of issues surrounding his team. In his early years Bradman, even as captain, completely distanced himself from his team-mates. This did not endear the Don to his colleagues although they still appreciated the runs that he scored.

Thirdly, AB needs to work out what he wants to achieve as a cricketer. It may be that he wants to do as much as he can in all forms of the game and is not concerned with his place in the pantheon of batting legends. Although this may be a noble ambition, one feels that it would be a mistake because he risks becoming a relative underachiever considering the vast talent at his disposal.

No sportsman can go flat out all the time. The greatest golfer of them all, Jack Nicklaus, has always insisted the secret of his success was that he managed his career carefully and played within himself. AB would do well to ponder both these points.

Nicklaus possessed great power. In his prime he was the longest hitter in the game, but he regarded his power as a weapon in reserve; it was something to be pulled out only when he needed it. Nicklaus only played shots that he knew he could pull off; he eschewed any risk that might ruin a round.

Nicklaus never made a silly mistake when a tournament was his to lose. He left that sort of caper to those who were trying to catch him. He was not frightened of losing to someone who was playing better than he was, but he never gifted anyone a victory.

In cricketing parlance, Nicklaus could be said to have always sold his wicket dearly. This is something that AB must learn before it is too late. Graem­e Pollock believed that he should be rarely caught other than behind the wicket and never run out or stumped, which he regarded as stupid ways to be dismissed. AB on the other hand has been unduly generous to his opponents, often when their bowling attacks have been there for the taking. Thus far his career has been littered with careless dismissals.

It is all very well saying that his enthusiasm must not be curbed, but cricket is a game of making more runs than the other team.

AB could become the most prolific run scorer in the history of South African cricket and consequently its greatest match winner, but this will not happen unless he chooses a different path from the one he currently follows.

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