One, two, three. Reverse sweeps, for four, to go from 89 to 101. In a Test match, in a series decider, in Australia.
Who the hell does that? AB de Villiers did, in Perth, against off-spinner Nathan Lyon in 2012. As illustrations of dominance on a cricket field go, they don’t come much better. The impudence.
But that summed up the player and batsman De Villiers had become. “Peak AB” left you gasping, shaking your head - “AB de Silliers” someone somewhere tweeted. “He starts off from the perspective that every ball is worth six runs and works his way down; for most other players, it’s a start at zero and work your way up,” Barry Richards told me a few years back.
Impossible wasn’t in the De Villiers vocabulary when it came to batting. “Honestly, you can’t make 100 from 30 balls, it’s not right,” mused Rilee Rossouw, in the aftermath of the world record De Villiers set at the Wanderers three years ago.
But, like any sportsman, any cricketer, it took De Villiers a while to figure out his game. What looked so easy at his peak, got him into trouble initially, as he battled to understand his value to the national team, and sussing out the moment to go from conservative control to outrageous dominance.
A turning point was Lord’s in 2008, in De Villiers’ 41st Test. De Villiers made 42 in the first innings of that match, getting himself out at a crucial stage when he casually flicked a delivery from Monty Panesar to midwicket. His captain, Graeme Smith and the Proteas coach at the time, Mickey Arthur, were furious. They let De Villiers have it in front of the rest of the team in the post-day dressing room debrief. De Villiers didn’t take kindly to that dressing down.
He had a very public sulk on the dressing room balcony later in that match - burying himself in a Jeffrey Archer novel - as his teammates saved the game. Apparently there wasn’t much chat between him and the team leadership before the next Test at Headingley. He let his bat talk, making a magnificent 174 in an intense atmosphere as South Africa claimed a series lead.
De Villiers was central to the success South Africa had between 2008 and 2013, when the Proteas ascended to the top of the rankings in the Test arena.
But De Villiers was also the first truly great all-format player able to manipulate his talents in order to be successful in T20s, ODIs and Test matches. He could dominate like he did in Perth, crush it as he did at the Wanderers in 2015 or block as he did in Adelaide in 2012. The great ones adapt, and De Villiers did so at the most vital moments.
De Villiers certainly slots into the very top bracket of the great batsmen this country has produced. Ali Bacher explained that as far as he was concerned what was once a duet - Graeme Pollock and Richards - is now a trio, that must include De Villiers as among the great SA batsmen. Jacques Kallis would be there too, but would readily give up his spot in a top three of great South African batsmen.
Where De Villiers stands apart from Pollock, Richards and even Kallis is his adaptability, not just across formats, but in foreign conditions too - he’s made hundreds from India to Australia and against some of the very best bowlers too.
He rose to become a virtual deity in India where cricket is more than a sport. They – and the Titans – will now get to see De Villiers; the green and gold of the Proteas is in his past.
Four hundred and twenty international matches, 20 014 runs, 463 catches, 17 stumpings and nine wickets. Those are hefty numbers in anyone’s book, but De Villiers was about so much more than just statistics. He put bums in seats (mostly), drew eyes to the television – and more lately laptops, tablets and smartphones – and he dominated. A 21st century cricketer like no other. A hat-trick of reverse sweeps to go to a Test hundred – who does that?
AB’s Proteas Top 10
1) 126*, Second Test vs Australia, Port Elizabeth, March 2018
That his best Test knock should come in his third last match is indicative of how well De Villiers has played this year. It was a startling performance against some vicious reverse swing, that illustrated his supreme talent and unrelenting desire. Where others found success merely by surviving, De Villiers attacked, producing some unbelievably high quality shots in an innings that turned the match and ultimately the series.
2) 174, Second Test vs England, Leeds, July 2008
In the previous match he’d been given a dressing down in front of his teammates that he didn’t appreciate. His skipper and coach had sought to explain his value to the side and that he couldn’t gift his wicket as in the first Test. His riposte was an innings of great skill, as he put the team in the ascendancy, in the match and the series.
3) 106*, First Test vs Australia, Perth, December 2008
A marvellous all-round Test match from De Villiers that peaked in the fourth innings as he took South Africa to a historic victory at the Waca. The Proteas were set 414 to win, and De Villiers first with Jacques Kallis and then debutant JP Duminy absorbed Australian pressure and then turned it back on to them with a glorious show of patience, skill and maturity. This innings solidified his greatness, and was the start of his era of dominance.
4) 33, Second Test vs Australia, Adelaide, November 2012
An innings that doesn’t fit with De Villiers’ reputation. This was not a “360-degree” showpiece. Instead it was ‘AB de Block’ - 246 minutes, 233 balls, no fours no sixes. South Africa found themselves in an enormous hole after being set 430 with the best part of two days left. The Australians struck hard and quick in that last innings reducing the tourists to 45/4, from where the great “blockathon” started as De Villiers and Faf du Plessis held off the hosts, kept the series tied and then AB did.
5) 169, Third Test vs Australia, Perth, November 2012
Following that epic blocking brigade, De Villiers then produced this thrilling display, which included the hat-trick of reverse sweeps against Lyon. It was one of those perfect set-ups for De Villiers to show off all his attacking prowess Graeme Smith and Hashim Amla had attacked the Aussies earlier and then De Villiers annihilated them with drives, pulls, hooks, cuts and flicks to bat them out of the game.
6) 149, Second ODI vs West Indies, Johannesburg, January 2015
De Villiers walked to the crease in the 39th over, apparently reluctantly because he felt Dave Miller was better suited to the situation. Pah! He hit the first ball he faced for four, 15 balls later he had 50 - a new record; 15 balls after that he had 100 - also a new record. There are shots in this innings that defy logic and physics. The Bullring screamed itself hoarse. He faced 44 balls, and hit nine fours and 16 sixes.
7) 162*, World Cup Group Match, vs West Indies, Sydney, March 2015
De Villiers was ill and needed medication on the morning of the game and even just prior to going out to bat. He took another pill during the innings... imagine if he’d been 100% healthy! It was another breathtaking display, at times spectators and media just broke into fits of giggles so ridiculous was some of the shotmaking. He faced 66 balls, hit 17 fours and eight sixes – just silly.
8) 217, Second Test vs India, Ahmedabad, April 2008
A well-rounded, almost text-book Test match innings. The Indians had been rolled for nothing in their first innings and the opportunity arose for SA to dominate, but at 117/4 they were in danger of throwing away the bowlers’ good work. De Villiers ensured that wouldn’t happen with an eight hour 333-ball special that saw him register his first Test double hundred. He showed great care against the spin of Harbhajan Singh and Anil Kumble and attacked against the Indian seamers. South African won by an innings and plenty.
9) 146, World Cup Super Eights vs West Indies, Grenada, April 2007
Yup, the West Indies being put to the sword again, with a circumspect effort. De Villiers did rein himself in here, probably attempting to show off that more responsible side, but it was still an innings - cramps and all - that contained outrageous shot-making, that floored the West Indies, again.
10) 103, First Test vs Pakistan, Wanderers, February 2013
Another terrific “front-runner” innings where De Villiers, turned a strong position for his side into a victorious one with controlled fury. This was one of his finest Tests that included a record-equalling 11 catches – as wicketkeeper.