De Villiers: Driven by desperation

AB de Villiers (AP)
AB de Villiers (AP)

London - AB de Villiers was as ashen and emotionally crumpled a figure as any others around him, even if some people disguise or internalise their angst quite effectively, when his Proteas team failed by a whisker to reach another World Cup final in early 2015.

South Africa gave it everything, in the dramatic Auckland semi against New Zealand and at several other tournament phases before it, in the bid to bury that infernal, now 19-year-long broad ICC trophy bogey.

We also know that ill-timed, off-field tumult in the immediate lead-up to that match disturbed the equilibrium ... yes, quite possibly enough to influence the outcome.

Certainly under the stewardship of coach Russell Domingo and the captaincy of De Villiers at CWC 2015, the Proteas may well have come as close as at any other ICC limited-overs event since 1998 to having their name engraved triumphantly on silverware.

Once again, it was just not to be.

On Saturday at The Oval, the 33-year-old De Villiers steels himself and his troops for another jinx-breaking attempt when they open their ICC Champions Trophy account against Sri Lanka (11:30 SA time).

It is not the World Cup; that remains the grander prize ... and De Villiers has made no bones about his intention to stick it out in national colours after an already marathon career to the next one in 2019, also to be on English and Welsh soil, when he will be 35.

It is clearly, understandably a bit of an obsession for a man who has savoured a great deal of majestic triumph across the globe in the premier Test format, but who wishes to change the conspicuously blank status in that unticked box for him: a proper, big ‘un in world one-day terms.

Well, the Champions Trophy has gravitas enough to fall into that category - there are plenty of pedigreed cricket people who consider it better and more alluring than CWC.

It is shorter, more intense and pits genuine strength against strength just about all the time, unlike the elongated World Cup with its additional Hollands, Bermudas, Scotlands and the like.

Put it this way: if South Africa win it, automatically laying so many ghosts to rest at the same time, approval ratings will positively soar back home; there’ll be a tickertape welcome, and why not?

They’d be the anti-chokers; the guys who finally had the cojones. And De Villiers will know this.

Already the top-ranked ODI batsman, it may well make the ace right-hander an even more dangerous proposition personally at the Champs Trophy crease.

To put it quite simply, De Villiers is staggeringly good in the 50-overs environment, as borne out by an average of 54.38 and strike rate of 100.

With his 9 299 runs, he lies 15th - and climbing - in the list of all-time top run-scorers in the format, and nobody (rethink that: nobody) above him sports a better average or strike rate, which tells you so clearly about his calibre just in case you didn’t appreciate it already.

If he fires gloriously at this tournament, he will take games away from teams. There is nobody better when he is at his optimum levels of ruthlessness from the middle of his bat, and that unbridled audacity in his more subtle methods of stroke-play.

De Villiers must be severely sick of collective SA failure - or at least, inability to end atop the pile – in major events: he has had three cracks in World Cups (2007, 2011, 2015), as many in Champions Trophies (2006, 2009, 2013) and six in World T20s (2007, 2009, 2010, 2012, 2014, 2016).

Together, you might call it a dirty dozen.

What’s more, opportunities are running out: the future of the Champions Trophy remains in some doubt, whilst the next World T20 (initially touted for 2018) will almost certainly now only take place in 2020.

That means De Villiers may feasibly only have the current tournament plus that huge intended CWC push in 2019 to experience premier, multinational tournament glory.

For what it’s worth, as we weigh up his own performance possibilities at this imminently-beginning jamboree for the Proteas, he delivers significantly better statistically at World Cups (average a dream-like 63.52) than he does at Champs Trophies, even if 42.00 is still not to be entirely sniffed at.

In British conditions, too, he traditionally underwhelms a bit in all ODIs: he sports 487 runs at 37.46 from 17 matches, although his Test stats in England (545 runs at 54.50) serve as a reminder that he hardly dreads taking guard in the Green and Pleasant Land.

Perhaps I am over-dramatizing this, but it does seem as though De Villiers, after many years of wear and tear on the world cricket treadmill, is finding it harder and harder to subdue niggles, or even to keep more full-blown injuries at bay.

When he is doing his customary acrobatic stuff in the field, it is so often these days followed by worrisome grimacing, flexing, ginger testing of various parts of his long-serving body to make sure they are still functioning to suitable levels after an impact with the turf or a particularly profound feat of exertion.

I believe now, for what it’s worth, that I may have been unreasonable to a good extent in suggesting several months ago that De Villiers was showing a certain disdain for Test cricket - already so threatened a species - with his pick-and-choose policy for several looming challenges in the format.

His self-preservation remains so much in the national interest; it is possible he genuinely realises that he cannot, any longer, just go and go and go in national colours, whether green or white.

The player has given an awful lot for South Africa since December 2004. Personally, I am increasingly more at peace with the idea of enjoying him whenever and wherever you can, and respecting his belief that occasional, harsh absentee steps will be necessary to keep him ticking healthily for the Proteas, both physically and mentally, for two or three more years.

Father Time is taking its inevitable toll on AB de Villiers.

Appreciate what he still does, while he does it.

Expect him to be placing an unusually keen emphasis on being that very “doer” over the next couple of weeks ...

*Rob is attending the Champions Trophy for Sport24. Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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