Cor­ri­dor of un­cer­tainty

Hit­man | AB de Vil­liers has cap­tained SA in 100 ODIs of which they have won 58. But the jury re­mains out on whether he is the best man for the job. The Cham­pi­ons Tro­phy will an­swer that ques­tion defini­tively

Sunday Times - - SPORT - TELFORD VICE

AB de Vil­liers doesn’t seem sus­cep­ti­ble to be­ing am­bushed, but he had nowhere to run nor hide when a cou­ple of photographers snared him in their viewfind­ers, pa­parazzi-style, at The Oval on Fri­day.

“Just a cou­ple of shots, please,” one said, mo­tion­ing for him to pick up the sculp­tural slab of sil­ver-and-gold gleam­ing on the ta­ble to his right as he walked in for his press con­fer­ence ahead of yes­ter­day’s match against Sri Lanka.

De Vil­liers looked slightly taken aback at the re­quest, as if he hadn’t no­ticed the shiny ele­phant in the room.

Re­minded that Graeme Smith would refuse to touch a tro­phy be­fore a tour­na­ment, De Vil­liers quipped: “I’ll take it to him when we win it.”

Whether he will be able to make good on that prom­ise de­pends on how things went yes­ter­day, and against Pak­istan at Edg­bas­ton on Wed­nes­day and In­dia back at The Oval next Sun­day.

Non­sense. We all know that South Africa’s tour­na­ment starts, like most of them have, in the knock­out stage.

How might they fare against, say, Eng­land in the semi­fi­nals? Or In­dia in the fi­nal? And how that story is told will de­pend to an un­fair de­gree on De Vil­liers’ per­for­mance.

Not with a bat in his hands and the world, seem­ingly, at his feet. He has an­swered that ques­tion many matches and many, many runs ago. South Africa have al­ways had the play­ers to win tour­na­ments. What they haven’t had are the teams — which are only, in im­por­tant ways, as good as their cap­tains.

Is De Vil­liers a good enough cap­tain to go where no South African — not Smith, not Shaun Pol­lock, not Han­sie Cronje — has yet gone: to the podium to col­lect a tro­phy his team have earned? The jury re­mains out on whether De Vil­liers is as suited to the role as Faf du Plessis, his test and T20 coun­ter­part.

Du Plessis plainly en­joys pulling his team’s strings. To some, De Vil­liers looks like he isn’t sure how to un­tan­gle the same strings. When Du Plessis is in charge, changes in the field and dis­cus­sions with bowlers hap­pen seam­lessly. Blink and you’ll miss them.

When De Vil­liers is at the helm, it can seem as if South Africa hold com­mit­tee meet­ings be­tween de­liv­er­ies. That, his doubters say, is surely why he has strug­gled to man­age his bowlers ef­fi­ciently enough to avoid the at­ten­tions of the over-rate po­lice.

“Yeah, it’s some­thing we shouldn’t be talk­ing about,” De Vil­liers said, mind­ful that he is one more mi­nor in­frac­tion away from a ban. “We've pin­pointed ar­eas where we can get bet­ter at it.

“There’s no ex­cuse for get­ting be­hind the rate in the first 10 to 15 overs. So we’ve tar­geted that as an area where we can make up time and get four or five min­utes ahead. Where it does get a bit com­pli­cated is at the end of the in­nings when there’s a part­ner­ship go­ing. The game slows down and it’s dif­fi­cult to set the right fields at the right time.

“But that’s no ex­cuse and it’s some­thing we will get right in this tour­na­ment. It’s just non­nego­tiable.”

Is­sues like this are among the nuts and bolts of cap­taincy. The big­ger, broader, more im­por­tant fact is that De Vil­liers is al­ready South Africa’s most suc­cess­ful ODI cap­tain by the only mea­sure that mat­ters: win­ning. He went into yes­ter­day’s game with a cen­tury of cap­tain­cies to his name. South Africa won 58 of those matches and lost 37, a suc­cess ra­tio of 38.51.

Smith’s ra­tio was 36.65, Pol­lock’s 37.32 and Cronje’s 33.24, al­though we will never know how many of the lat­ter’s matches in charge were ma­nip­u­lated for money and to what de­gree.

“He’s an ex­cep­tional leader,” JP Du­miny said of De Vil­liers this week. “His big­gest strength is that he leads from the front through his per­for­mance. He doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily have to say much. We as the team will al­ways fol­low him in terms of what he does and what he says.

“He’s a true as­set to South African cricket and if you have him in your team, you’re only go­ing to ben­e­fit from it.”

That much we have known for years, and it is a fac­tor in the dif­fi­culty some South Africans have with the idea of De Vil­liers as a cap­tain.

As counter-in­tu­itive as it seems, De Vil­liers’ bat­ting bril­liance has set the bar im­pos­si­bly high for him as a leader. There is no cap­taincy equiv­a­lent of ca­su­ally flick­ing a length de­liv­ery from the op­po­si­tion’s best bowler over your shoul­der for six. Thing is, South Africans who have come to ex­pect De Vil­liers to pull off the feat rou­tinely at the crease ex­pect him to show the same in­can­des­cence as a cap­tain.

“It has its chal­lenges, al­ways, be­ing cap­tain of this team, in any of the for­mats,” De Vil­liers said, os­ten­si­bly about tak­ing up the reins directly from miss­ing the test se­ries in New Zealand, but with res­o­nance for the big­ger pic­ture.

“But I’ve done it for quite a while now and I feel pretty com­fort­able with that. I’ve been well

Du Plessis plainly en­joys pulling his team’s strings. To some, De Vil­liers looks like he isn’t sure how to un­tan­gle the same strings He’s a true as­set to South African cricket and if you have him in your team you’re only go­ing to ben­e­fit from it

ac­cepted by the side. There are not only one or two lead­ers on the team; we’ve got four or five re­ally strong lead­ers and we all have the right to have a voice at times, and we all al­low that as a lead­er­ship group.

“I’ve never been a kind of leader to come in and to try claim my ter­ri­tory. I feel very com­fort­able when I come into the side and the cul­ture that we've cre­ated over the last while al­lows me to come in and do my thing.”

Go do your thing, AB. But terms and con­di­tions ap­ply: Graeme Smith awaits your knock at his door.

Pic­ture: GETTY IMAGES

COM­FORT­ABLE WITH LEAD­ER­SHIP: South Africa’s cap­tain AB de Vil­liers says the Proteas side has many lead­ers who all have a right to have a voice at times

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