Their score vindicated De Villiers's point that cricket is played as much in the head as on the field.
South Africa’s stunning seven-wicket victory against Australia in their opening game of the Triangular series at the Harare Sports Club raised eyebrows among their opposition, but not just because the win came so stylishly and with a whopping 20 balls to spare.
The Proteas’ decision to reconvene just 48 hours before the game was treated as a slight by several members of the Aussie squad, with the meticulous Michael Clarke asking aloofly: “Could you imagine me going on holiday for three days before a game against South Africa?”
His opposite number, AB de Villiers, explained, patiently and repeatedly, on their return from a trip to the luxurious Chikwenya Lodge that cricket was “played in the head as much as on the field” and that he believed it was vital for him and his players to be “mentally fresh in order to play at our best”.
His unbeaten 136 from just 106 balls on Wednesday was his 18th one-day international (ODI) century, all of them scored at better than a run a ball and was emphatic proof – if any was needed – that his decision to spend time “around the campfire with hippos and crocodiles just a few metres away” was the right way for him to prepare. Some of the bowlers may have looked a little rusty but they were quickly back into the swing of things midway through the Australian innings, which looked likely to be 50 runs more than the 327-7 it finished on.
De Villiers said on Tuesday: “I fully expect to make a significant impact on this series and I will be very disappointed if I don’t.”
What a start, and there may well be more to come today if the captain’s tight hamstring, which limited his movement so noticeably in the final third of his innings, has recovered in time for him to lead the team in the considerably less challenging task of facing Zimbabwe.
It will be a surprise if several others also don’t make a mark here. Hashim Amla, surely, will feed heavily on the flat Harare Sports Club wicket, while Faf du Plessis might add quickly to his century collection now that the ceiling has been broken with his first, a scintillating 106 during a stand of 203 with his captain.
But just as likely to feature will be Quinton de Kock. It wasn’t his day on Wednesday but you wouldn’t have known it if you’d been in the Proteas change room. De Kock appears to have acquired the priceless gift of equanimity, treating success and failure with the same disregard.
He equalled the record for the least innings to 1?000 ODI runs and no player in history had matched his five centuries in his first 20 innings – not even close. Kevin Pietersen and Sir Viv Richardson “only” managed three apiece in their first 20 starts. Big names, big reputations, big “so what?”
“I don’t try to live up to anything or anybody, I don’t fit into anybody else’s box, I’m just my own person,” De Kock says with such simplicity it is impossible to doubt him. He certainly hasn’t been around long enough to be coached in the skills of providing bland, politically correct answers.
“Why would I put any pressure on myself? I’m not here to break records or anything, I’m just here to enjoy myself and do what I love doing, you know?”
Averaging well over 50 for the first wicket with Hashim Amla, the 21-year-old cheerfully agrees that he benefited from the soothing presence of the great man in the early days of their partnership but says their relationship is now one of trust and understanding.
“Hash used to play a big part when I first played for the Proteas. He used to calm me down a lot, but now he just lets me do my thing and we play our own games. His confidence in me has grown as a partner and that’s helped both of us. Now we don’t say too much between overs – just ‘carry on, it’s going well’. Which, more often than not, it is.”
Like De Kock, Amla is also capable of making a flying start so, although the senior man is happy to take the back seat most of the time these days, their alliance does not follow a prescribed formula.
“I will change roles, of course, but if there’s a bad ball then obviously I’m going to hit it for four. But if Hash is on a roll then obviously I will give him more of the strike.”
A prolific career with Gauteng as a teenager led to his call-up to the ODI side two months after his 20th birthday but his talent had not yet been matched with hard work. That changed soon enough in the Proteas set-up, reaching a peak before and during the series against India nine months ago when he scored three consecutive centuries. When he spoke to the Mail & Guardian he was the last man to finish training, barely minutes before the scheduled departure of the team bus.
“No, I used to be the hardest trainer but I have slacked off a bit since the India series,” he said, while the rest of the squad waited. “I’ve grown in confidence with my game plan, so I don’t really work as hard as I used to. It’s just my ‘keeping; I need to work a bit harder at certain things.”
No doubt his perspective will change as the years roll by but, for now, life could not be more straightforward – like his cricket.
“I could be sitting in an office, you know, but I’m out here doing my thing. I’m incredibly lucky. If I can do this for the next 15 to 20 years, I will have lived a happy life.”