DURBAN – He didn’t know it at the time, but Keshav Maharaj was the last man to be at the wicket when AB de Villiers made an international hundred.
Of all De Villiers’ hundreds, he saved one of the very best for last, because it was an innings of such chutzpah, given the circumstances.
“It was pretty special to be at the non-striker’s end, and now knowing that it was the last hundred makes it even more special,” the Proteas left-arm spinner reflected.
Like many in the side, Maharaj was surprised by De Villiers’ sudden retirement, but his thoughts almost immediately turned to what De Villiers had given to him in the time that they were together in the national side.
“He has such a sense of calmness. I think that is the biggest thing about him at the wicket. In that innings in PE, things were obviously quite tense, given the situation in the series. I got there and he was closing in on a great hundred,” Maharaj remembered.
The instruction was to support, and let De Villiers continue with his brilliance. Maharaj, however, had what he calls a “brain-fart”, when he skied Nathan Lyon to deep mid-wicket.
“The worst thing was that AB had just come to me the ball before, and told me to play my natural game, but just not towards the one guy out in the deep,” he sighed.
Naturally, then, De Villiers was just as surprised as everyone else when he saw the next ball head straight towards Usman Khawaja on the fence.
Behind Maharaj on the batting card was Lungi Ngidi, and South Africa were still trying to build a substantial lead, to set up a series-levelling victory.
“Thank goodness Khawaja stepped over the ropes, because I was horrified! When I realised it was six, we had a bit of a laugh, and then AB again reminded me to switch back on, keep playing my game, and to stay in the moment.”
As the lead mounted, De Villiers even had the good humour to boast that his own six off Lyon was much bigger than Maharaj’s effort.
Incredibly, he also had the uncanny knack of knowing what the Aussies would be bowling to his partner.
“That was crazy, just how well he read their minds. They changed their lengths at me, and he kept on calling it. I kept thinking it was like he was on Play Station, controlling the bowlers.”
Maharaj also noted that there was a different feel when De Villiers was on strike.
One up in the series, and still fired up after more than a bit of needle between the teams, the Aussies were very talkative to most of the South Africans. Not as much to De Villiers, though, and certainly not during that definitive knock.
“There is definitely an aura there, and you could feel the Aussies retreat when he was on strike. I guess that is the respect for him, because it doesn’t matter what you bowl to him sometimes,” Maharaj said, with his bowling cap on.
There was one astonishing stroke off Pat Cummins – the best bowler for the tourists in the series – which disappeared over mid-wicket, despite being on a good length.
“That was incredible, and you could almost hear the silence in the middle,” Maharaj revealed.
Away from the intensity of the field, Maharaj said the former South African captain was a really bubbly part of the change-room. In fact, the only time he got intense was in the soccer matches that form a big part of the team’s warm-up routine.
“AB is a very competitive guy, and he didn’t like it if anyone was getting on top of him. I would definitely say that I got under his skin a little bit, because I did get the better of him on a few occasions.”
So much so, he added, that De Villiers even left a mark on Maharaj’s calf in the final soccer match they played at The Wanderers.
“Now that I think about it, I don’t know if it was on purpose, to pay back for the rest of the season!” Maharaj joked.
That is the De Villiers the team will miss, he reiterated, the one that the cameras didn’t always get to see.
“He was brilliant with the younger guys in the team. He loves joking around, and he just made everyone feel at ease. He has been around a long time, so he knew the things that we were going through.”
On the field, Maharaj reckons that De Villiers had no peer.
“He was a freak. A real freak of the game. The things he did might not be done for a long, long time. But I did get the better of him on the soccer field!”