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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 October 2018

AB De Villiers deserves to be regarded as an all-time cricket great

AB de Villiers is a consistent and prolific batsman but the South African is overshadowed in the list of modern greats, writes Osman Samiuddin.
AB De Villiers celebrates his record-breaking century at the Wanderers Stadium on January 18. Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters
AB De Villiers celebrates his record-breaking century at the Wanderers Stadium on January 18. Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters

Here are some things AB de Villiers might need to do or to be. Maybe he needs to be boorish and really get into people’s faces.

Maybe he needs to have a high-profile wife. Maybe he needs to be from the Big Three.

Maybe he needs to get rid of the wicketkeeping gloves completely so that our appreciation of his batting alone is not diluted by the acknowledgement of a genius that could see him bowl a ball, then play it at the other end while also ‘keeping to it and ultimately fielding it as well.

Maybe he needs a different backstory than just being a man of relative privilege from a country with few privileges. Maybe he needs to be a kind of quasi-statesman-batsman.

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Or maybe, just maybe, sometimes he needs to look a little fallible so that we understand he is human. Why? De Villiers gets plenty of plaudits. He is lauded and the acknowledgment grows daily.

But, although De Villiers is not denied what is his due, it does feel sometimes as if he is overlooked when we eulogise the best modern batsmen.

That he comes somewhere behind Virat Kohli, David Warner, Kumar Sangakkara and even his teammate and Test captain Hashim Amla.

Which is strange because, arguably, he is the best of them. His range and consistency make that point.

On Sunday he made the fastest ODI hundred, off just 31 balls. Last March he took nearly six hours and 228 balls to make 43, in trying to deny Australia a Test victory.

Amla and Sangakkara can bat as long, Warner and Kohli, at a great stretch, as explosively. None of them can hit both extremes like De Villiers.

He is also relentlessly consistent. It has not been done to read or hear about De Villiers being out of form.

Even in his earliest years, it did not happen. The longest stretch he has gone without an international fifty across all formats is 12 innings, towards the end of 2012.

Seven of those were Twenty20 innings, where the lesser time available was compounded by his strange decision to bat lower in the order than he should. Otherwise, he rarely goes more than four, maybe five innings without crossing fifty and this is his 11th year as an international.

The best batsmen evolve over time. Kohli is closer to mastering Tests than before, Warner’s ODI career had a curiously low-key beginning and it took Sangakkara time to become what he is now.

De Villiers was ready when he arrived, having probably warmed up with an accomplished 28-ball 47 at birth.

It may be that his genius works against him, much in the way that it could be doing for a growing body of modern sporting greats.

Are great sportsmen just too great now for greatness to mean anything? Are they so good that it becomes a little boring after a while?

It often feels that way with De Villiers. That flip over square leg, or sweeping the fast bowlers – these are the acts of a man who has surveyed the entire batting spectrum and then gone further.

At those moments cricket seems pitiably undemanding for a man of his gifts, a man we should remind ourselves could have taken his pick of almost any sport when he was young.

He should be doing something extreme, like sprinting up Everest, or leading an elite combat unit.

Maybe he needed a different age, where batting was not breaking new ground pretty much every other week, where these feats were not slightly dulled by their frequent occurrence. Maybe an age with more great bowlers.

He likely would have thrived just as he does now but we might have appreciated his freakishness more. Maybe we will if he wins a world title a couple of months from now.

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