One of the biggest dilemmas that confront all successful sportspersons is the timing of their retirement. Very few manage to get it right and leave the arena exhibiting the same sense of timing that characterise their sporting career.
Most fail to do so and choose to challenge themselves further, seeking to scale yet another peak. In the process, many tend to trip and fall with the result that lasting image about them in the minds of lovers of the sport would be that of a diminished hero, while others descend down to the level of mere mortals making fans ask the question as to why don't they hang up their boots and spare everyone the agony. Abraham Benjamin de Villiers, who just retired from international cricket, belongs to the select group of sporting heroes who decided to quit while still at his peak, making everyone ask the question 'why'.
The reason offered by de Villiers was simple - he was feeling too tired and his body could not take the gruelling schedule any longer. As he himself put it, the decision was a tough one and it came at a time when he had helped South Africa to two major series triumphs against India and Australia. He had been plagued with injuries for most part of 2016 but had returned to the side and was in fine nick during the last season. Even in the 2018 Indian Premier League (IPL), he was the eighth-highest run scorer, batting with the fluency so characteristic of him and displaying no signs of injury or stress. Hence, one could understand the surprise and shock of the fans when they heard the news of his retirement from the game.
A cricketer beyond compare
It would be an understatement to say that de Villiers was a cricketer beyond compare. Mere statistics would not reveal the full extent of his impact on the game. This might sound surprising given the fact that he amassed 20,014 runs during his 14 seasons in international cricket, which included 47 centuries and 109 knocks above 50. He holds the record for the fastest 50 (16 balls), 100 (31 balls) and 150 (44 balls) in One-Day Internationals. He was a brilliant fielder, pouching 463 catches, including 222 in Test matches, and was a good enough stumper to keep wickets for South Africa on a regular basis for a couple of seasons. Some of the stunning catches that he pulled off while fielding in the deep, jumping so high as to defy gravity and plucking the ball out of thin air, would remain etched in the minds of cricket lovers forever. He led South Africa in limited overs’ cricket for five years from 2012 onwards and could also turn his arm over effectively when required. In short, such was his genius that there was nothing he could not do successfully on a cricket field, even at the highest level.
'360 degrees' batting
The greatness of de Villiers as a batsman lies in the manner in which he could dominate the bowlers. In this regard, he was the true successor of Viv Richards, Brian Lara and Sachin Tendulkar, all of who could use the willow to decimate bowlers and reduce them to complete subjugation.
De Villiers went one up on these batting legends as he invented new angles through which ball could traverse the field from the batting crease. This concept of '360 degrees' batting so confounded hapless bowlers who did not know where to bowl as the batsman found new and more innovative ways to pierce the field placements and send the ball to the ropes. He would walk across the stumps challenging the bowler in his delivery stride and then coolly place the ball either on top of the square-leg fence or over the point boundary, with no visible effort. In moments such as those, which the fans of the game had witnessed scores of times, de Villiers appeared like a superhuman with the willow in hand. No one, including his more celebrated contemporaries with better statistical records, could attempt such shots, let alone pull them off with such aplomb.
However, de Villiers was not a batsman who should be remembered solely on account of his dazzling stroke play and ability to improvise his range of shots. He could also use the willow to play defensively and wear the bowlers down like Sunil Gavaskar used to do in his heydays. His knock of 33 off 220 balls at Adelaide against Australia in 2012 which helped South Africa to play out 120 overs brought back memories of Australian Stan McCabe, the old stonewaller. He demonstrated that this was not a one-off performance by batting for 354 minutes to score a mere 43 runs, while facing 297 balls, against India at Delhi in 2015. If he tackled the Aussie pacers with a dead bat at Adelaide, he showed his mettle against Indian spinners on a crumbling fifth day pitch in Delhi. It would have taken loads of discipline and monumental concentration besides tremendous physical stamina and indefatigable spirit for de Villiers to eschew his normal penchant for playing his shots and bat dourly, blocking everything bowled at him for hours on end. These knocks showed a new facet of not only his batting but of his personality as well, and increased his appeal amongst the lovers of the game.
Which is my favourite de Villiers innings? As a self-confessed admirer of the oldest format of the game, I would limit the selection from amongst his innings' in Test matches. Here also selection is based on match situation and difficulties involved in scoring runs rather than the quantum scored. It has been universally acknowledged batting on the fifth day in a Test match is the ultimate test of a batsman's technique, temperament and character. Here two knocks played by de Villiers in the fourth innings of Test matches come to one's mind. The first was played against Australia at Perth in 2008, when South Africa were set a final innings target of 414 runs. Coming to bat at the fall of Hashim Amla with the total at 179, de Villiers shared at 124-run fourth wicket stand with Jacques Kallis and after that partnered J P Duminy to take his side to victory with six wickets to spare. This remains the highest last-innings target to have been chased successfully in Test matches until now.
On a similar occasion, against India at Johannesburg in 2013, South Africa, after being set a fourth innings target of 458 were staring down the barrel at 197 for 4 wickets when de Villiers joined Faf du Plassis. The pair added 205 runs for the fifth wicket with de Villiers scoring a brilliant 103 off 168 balls with 12 hits to the fence. The match was eventually drawn with the hosts failing to reach the target by a mere 8 runs, despite having three wickets in hand. On both these occasions, de Villiers demonstrated that no last innings total could be regarded as a safe one till the opposing side sees him back in the pavilion.
There have been plenty of disappointments in his career. The biggest one would obviously be the loss to New Zealand in the semifinals of ICC World Cup in 2015. It was widely acknowledged that after India, South Africa was the only side that possessed the capacity to mount an effective challenge to the Australian bid to regain the trophy on their home turf. Unfortunately, in the penultimate match, the Proteas’ were served a triple whammy in the form of Brendon McCullum of New Zealand in marauding mood, their key bowler Dale Steyn having a rare off day and the rain Gods working against them. Try as they might South Africans could not survive this congregation of forces against them and lost the match by the narrowest of margins. The unfairness of this result stood rudely exposed when the Kiwis were shown their place by the Aussies who secured a easy nine-wicket win in the finals. It must have pained skipper de Villiers that his side was not able to shake off the tag of 'chokers' that have plagued them since their return to international cricket, despite displaying time and again that they had the potential to be the champions.
A brilliant student, guitar player and singer too...
A little known fact about de Villiers is that had he not chosen to be cricketer, he would have achieved international ranking in tennis or rugby or golf, all sporting events in which he had displayed prodigious talent at an early age. He was also a brilliant student, having once received a medal for his scholastic ability from none other than the great Nelson Mandela. Further, he is an accomplished guitar player and singer, and had released an album in 2015. One cannot think of another sportsperson who has demonstrated such all-round talent and versatility.
Finally, it must be acknowledged that de Villiers was definitely the most popular cricketer of his times and one of the most loved players in the history of the game. His positive attitude, exuberance, enthusiasm, brilliance with the bat and superb athleticism won him fans and admirers all over the cricketing world. He was the darling of crowds wherever he played and it was quite natural for him to receive the same amount of cheers as the best payers of the home side at any venue in the world. To the lovers of the game, his departure from the game is a huge loss as there will never be another one like Abraham Benjamin de Villiers for many many more years to come.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)
Read more: Vantage Point