AB de Villiers is 20 years old, and in his four Test matches to date has been asked to perform three different functions. He has been, chronologically, opening batsman, wicketkeeper-batsman, and specialist middle-order batsman. Nobody would turn a hair if he turned up in Centurion for the Fifth Test as South Africa's mystery spinner.
He is probably working on the wrong 'un just in case. He has taken to this variety of roles with the brio of self-confident youth. That and the knowledge he is a very good player who has influential support. De Villiers is the product of a sports-daft Afrikaans family from the small town of Warmbad, in the north of the country.
He is one of those boys who most of us knew at school and both resented and wanted to be. De Villiers plays golf off a handicap of two, not having had time to maintain his scratch rating, gave up tennis at the age of 13 when he was in the national squad and did not want to leave home to attend the Nick Bollettieri Academy in Florida, and had an offer to play at fly-half for the Blue Bulls. Actually, maybe he was better than the average bloke you knew at school.
"I decided when I was 10 that I was going to do something in sport one day," he said. "I realised then that that was my way to go. My mum and dad are good at sports and I've got two older brothers who drilled into me how to play. I'm six years younger they made it clear that if I wanted to be involved I was going to get it, so every single game was unbelievably competitive.
"We're very competitive, my mum most of all, and when we get on to a tennis court or golf course the family stops. That's how I grew up, every single day of my life I was playing something, and from about 16 it was cricket. It's part of the Afrikaans culture, playing it hard and doing your best. But it's very important to stay humble, that was a very big part of my growing up, not getting big-headed." He is called Abraham Benjamin after his father, a general practitioner, who is also known as AB. AB Senior's grandfather was also AB, and AB Junior intends to call his son AB.
Afrikaans cricketers have become pre-eminent since South Africa were readmitted. Cricket was more or less a game for those of English origin before transformation. Then, some time in the early Eighties, the Afrikaans section of society took the game to their hearts and it has exploded. The touring party who went to India last November included only three cricketers of English origins.
De Villiers' school, Afrikaans Hoer Seunsskool in Pretoria, where Jacques Rudolph was also a pupil, barely played the game before the Nineties. "By the time I was there we became No 1," he said. If things have come easy to De Villiers, he has inherited his culture's work ethic. Church and sport are twin religions. "Sundays in church, and whenever I've got time off church, cricket and golf."
He was a star of the South African Under-19 team in England in 2003, charmed Carrickfergus Cricket Club in Northern Ireland last summer and was utterly unflustered by his early elevation to Test cricket. It has become pretty much accepted straight away that he will be around for years. The spectacular catch off Marcus Trescothick and the match-saving 52 not out in Durban saw to that.
There is an engaging naïveté and certainty about his attitude. "It's frustrating, actually, and I was really surprised when they told me there was a chance I wouldn't take the gloves again," he said. "I had set my thoughts on keeping, but I have got my career in front of me and I will be ready when they call on me again. I would like to see my future as a wicketkeeper-batsman, and they tell me that opening and keeping in Tests isn't going to happen, so five would be the perfect spot. In the one-dayers I'd like to open and keep." Bursting with energy and confidence he surely is, but he exhibited the folly and overconfidence of youth yesterday by slamming a hook down backward square-leg's throat. Something to learn then.
Mark Boucher, who was recalled to keep wicket in this Test, described De Villiers as "a serious player". Graeme Smith had no compunction whatever about handing a boy of 20 so many different jobs to perform so soon. Ray Jennings, the new coach, spotted De Villiers' obvious composure when he was in charge of South Africa A.
"I love Test cricket," De Villiers said. "I love the intensity and the pressure, and when I was batting at Durban I couldn't hear the crowd. When you move from the provincial side into the national side you've got doubts, but if the doubts get to you you'll struggle." The feeling is that Test cricket will love him.Reuse content