AB de Villiers departs and leaves a Picasso-sized hole in cricket

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Barney Ronay

AB de Villiers learned his craft before T20 was invented but made the game look easy, regardless of the format

AB de Villiers
‘This is part of the Picasso element to AB. Aged 34 he remains the most innovative, flexible, multi-genre, super-modern batsman in cricket.’ Illustration: Matt Johnstone
‘This is part of the Picasso element to AB. Aged 34 he remains the most innovative, flexible, multi-genre, super-modern batsman in cricket.’ Illustration: Matt Johnstone

Last modified on Sat 26 May 2018 04.04 EDT

It seems odd now but English people really did used to hate Pablo Picasso, godfather of cubism and the great all-format all-rounder of 20th century art. When Picasso died in 1973 Kingsley Amis wrote in a letter to Philip Larkin: “I see Pablo the piss-poor paint-pusher has fallen off the hooks at last.” Thirty years earlier Winston Churchill is said to have expressed a willingness to “kick him up the backside” if he saw Picasso walking down Whitehall. Evelyn Waugh went through a period of routinely signing off his letters “Death To Picasso!”

Weird. Foreign. Improvisational. Both eyes on same side of face. This seems to have been the basic tone of the objections to Pablo the paint-pusher, who is, needless to say, still going pretty strong and is this year expected to break his own single-year record of $568m of piss-poor artworks sold.

Indeed, looking back you wonder exactly what Winston and Kingers would have made of our own post-Picasso art world where experimentation with classical forms has given way to a generalised inanity. Nobody really knows what to put in these vast galleries anymore. Stuff made of dung, boring films, rooms full of bits of wood left on the floor. People just don’t have time any more to learn to draw like Da Vinci or Degas, who didn’t have mobile phones or television or anything else to do. It’s all so difficult. Just do a weird video.

All of which is a roundabout way of getting on to AB De Villiers, whose retirement from all forms of international cricket this week aged 34 has been a source of sadness.

You don’t need me to say how good he is here. You already know all about that because you’ve seen him play, and to see De Villiers bat even for a few minutes is to be transported into his place, the AB Zone, where this impossibly difficult, awkward sport suddenly becomes entirely natural, easy, a breeze.

Even during one of those masterpieces of the AB years – fastest fifty, hundred and hundred and fifty in ODIs; slowest Test innings ever in pursuit of a draw in Delhi – the impression remains of a man essentially playing a backyard game, the kind of thing you might rig up with a tennis ball and an umbrella towards the end of an August bank holiday barbecue.

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The present tense is apt too. Just a couple of months ago De Villiers scored a remarkable Test hundred in Port Elizabeth, pulling and gliding Australia’s express bowlers with a bend of the knees, a nudge of the wrists. At times like these there even seems to be something unnaturally potent about the face of his bat, which never seems to have any marks on it, is rarely presented in anger, but which gleams with power like a huge shimmering vengeful slab of cheese.

This has been the genius of De Villiers: making the impossible look simple.

Watch him racking up that 31-ball hundred against West Indies and what strikes you is how much fun it looks, the whole thing pegged around the same basic movement, opening out his front foot to create that power-hitting base, and all the while holding in his head a picture of the angles, the spaces in the field, recalibrated minutely as the ball enters his arc.

Somehow even in these moments AB has still felt like one of us, just a better version, Cricket Human 3.0. Again this is deceptive. I can remember sitting through one junior county age group training session where a room of earnestly frowning parents were told that their promising offspring should try as much as possible to be like AB, to be the complete sportsman, to develop transferable elite skills, as though this were something to reasonably aim for, and not just the trappings of an unrepeatably rare sporting talent. Come on little Johnny. Play hockey for England already.

Break the 100m record. Leap backwards on to that fireplace, average human child.

This is part of the Picasso element to AB. Aged 34 he remains the most innovative, flexible, multi-genre, super-modern batsman in cricket, brilliant in all the forms, a player who even in his dotage has seemed youthful, morning-fresh, always ahead of the curve.

AB de Villiers: 'I have had my turn and, to be honest, I am tired' – video
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AB de Villiers: 'I have had my turn and, to be honest, I am tired' – video

This probably shouldn’t be the case. De Villiers made his debut before T20 even existed. He has learned these skills on the job, becoming a genuine outlier only as he approached his 30s.

He isn’t alone in this. Right now all the best white-ball batsmen tend to be of an age, to be players with a grounding in the pre-modern times. Virat Kohli made his debut in 2006, Kane Williamson a year later. Chris Gayle, the T20 Bradman, was playing straight and scoring Test double tons before the shortest form existed.

Where are the next-gen geniuses to sweep aside these classically trained oldsters, batsmen able to bat out a nibbly day at Lord’s while also making the white-ball game up in front of them?

There is a theory we have been blessed by that intersection of old and new in the last 15 years, the spectacle of those who grew up learning the orthodoxies being able to bring that to the new forms. Nobody breaks the rules quite like a classicist. Perhaps with AB we’ve had our Pablo, a player able to bestride and take the best from both worlds.

No doubt this will be proved wrong. Talent keeps on coming. There will a wave beyond the new wave. But for AB it has been a distinct, and distinctly thrilling career, tracking step for step the most profound changes in cricket’s history through a space in time that won’t and can’t come again.

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