AB De Villiers is keeping critics busy
His antics behind the wicket and with the bat are proving sceptics wrong, even if they won't admit it, writes Neil Manthorp.
AB de Villiers is in a tricky spot. The more he succeeds, the more he will disappoint certain members of the cricket fraternity, some of them significantly influential. There are few things more entrenched than a player's reputation in this sport and De Villiers is going to have a very hard time convincing the sceptics that he is a wicketkeeper – at least, a genuine one.
"Jeez, you know how hard it's going to be to make people see sense now?" said a major roleplayer in the immediate aftermath of South Africa's compelling 211-run victory in the first Test against Pakistan at the Wanderers on Monday.
De Villiers had just equalled the world record of 11 catches in a match and scored a century for good measure. No wicketkeeper in history has come close to emulating the achievement. Yet it was a disastrous setback rather than a cause for celebration for those who remain convinced he cannot succeed as a specialist batsman and wicketkeeper.
Sometimes, the face or the name simply doesn't fit the label and there isn't a lot you can do about it. Like Australia's attempt to turn all-rounder Shane Watson into an opening batsman, or former Springbok rugby captain John Smit's forced attempt to become a prop – in the best interests of the team.
Thami Tsolekile was the first to agree that the team was better "balanced" with De Villiers keeping wicket in England and Australia but was given the view that it was a "stopgap" that only increased the impression among De Villiers doubters that he wasn't the "real" thing. Tsolekile, of course, certainly is the real thing, having kept wicket throughout his career.
Tsolekile is a fine gloveman, probably the best in the country, but he agreed with coach Gary Kirsten's assessment that he was not sufficiently better than De Villiers to justify his inclusion at the expense of either a specialist batsman or bowler. It was only when selection convenor Andrew Hudson told him that he wasn't good enough to bat at number seven that he spoke out and complained of "mixed messages".Quite understandably, too.
Those who claim it is not possible to keep wicket and bat in the top order successfully over a sustained period of time are quoting the "rule" rather than the exceptions that prove it. Zimbabwe's Andy Flower averaged well over 50 and former England captain Alec Stewart played Test cricket until the age of 39 despite occasionally carrying the triple burden of responsibility that De Villiers did briefly in the one-day international (ODI) side.
Stewart effected 277 dismissals in his 133-Test career for England and spent the majority of his time behind the stumps. Just 33 of his 277 catches were taken in the outfield. He batted everywhere from opener to number seven and moved around the batting order on a regular basis.
"Anything is possible. It simply depends on how well you look after yourself and how much you want to do it," Stewart said of his own achievements.
"Desire" and enjoyment, according to Stewart, are key ingredients to a cricketer being successful at what he does. Everyone should be able to put their personal preferences to one side for the sake of the team on a short-term basis, but they are extremely unlikely to enjoy sustained success if they are miserable or lacking in confidence. And the team will suffer.
De Villiers, who toured England with the official title of "reserve 'keeper", happily agreed to take Mark Boucher's place in England, but did so in a temporary capacity. He had no idea of how deeply he would fall in love with the job or the desire he would develop to carry on.
"I said years ago that I didn't want to 'keep because I wanted to be the best batsman in the world, but we all say things when we are young that we regret. First and foremost I am desperate to be a member of the best team in the world. Second, I would like to become the best wicketkeeper-batsman in the world," De Villiers said.
"I know what history suggests, but that's no reason not to change it. Records are there to be broken and reset. I'm very pleased with the [Wanderers] performance, I'm getting better at it. I'm still not where I want to be but it feels great to have a few catches going in sweetly – hopefully I'll keep getting better. I was not aware of the records, that's not why I play the game, but I am fortunate and grateful to be in that position. I'll keep my feet on the ground, keep working hard and hopefully become an even better player," De Villiers said.
The reality with De Villiers is that he is outrageously talented at whatever he does.
It's not just his "naturalness" with the gloves that is prejudged. He is also unfairly accused of wavering in his desire to 'keep. When Kirsten asked for Quinton de Kock to be selected for the ODI series against New Zealand, De Villiers said it would be a "great opportunity" to concentrate on his captaincy. But it was neither a choice nor a request from the player.
Jacques Kallis remembers being told by many elders in his early 20s to choose between being a batting or bowling all-rounder. "You can't score 8000 runs and take 250 wickets," they told him. How about 13000 and 300, then?
Who on earth do we think we are telling De Villiers he can't do anything?