Tag Archives: saffas

the magic of ABDV

The bats are bigger.

A batsman moves down into a dangerous crouch position while a ball is hurled at him at 90 miles an hour. While down there, he flicks over his head to an empty piece of field. The ball goes for six. “Look how far that flew. Bats today, blimey,” they gasp.

AB de Villiers stands back up and prepares for the next ball.


WG Grace isn’t remembered because of his famous beard and belly. Grace is remembered because of the runs he scored. But what is more remarkable is how he scored them. Batsmen started playing with no real foot movement. Then they moved into back-foot play. Front-foot play followed. What Grace did was combined front-foot and back-foot play. If the ball was full, he would go forward, if the ball was short, he would go back. If that looks familiar to you, it’s because we still do that. .

Ranjitsinhji said “he turned the old one-stringed instrument into a many-chorded lyre”.

But Ranji did something pretty damn amazing as well. Ranji took batting to fine leg. Before Ranji, fine leg was a place the ball went by accident. Because of Ranji’s early fear of the ball, he backed away, so his coach, Dan Hayward, tied his right leg to the ground. Ranji then invented the leg glance. A shot so weird to cricket at the time, captains often refused to put a fine leg in even while Ranji was scoring there. It was the most the field would be opened up for 100 years.

Victor Trumper made a mark too. Early batsmen, especially the gentlemen, believed hitting the ball on the leg side was vulgar. But cricket was slowly moving towards hitting the ball to where each ball dictated that it be hit. Trumper believed in hitting it to wherever he wanted to hit it. He was moving the ball across the line decades before Viv Richards and Kevin Pietersen were even born. Where the ball ended up was dependent on his mood, not dependent on the delivery or the deliverer.

Then cricket entered the batting-machine era. Men like Jack Hobbs, George Headley, Herbert Sutcliffe and Wally Hammond batted as if they had found some new code. The man who wrote that code, Don Bradman, clocked the entire game with his almost repeating, but never repeatable, 99.94.

Garfield Sobers was called the first 360-degree batsman by Barry Richards; 360 degrees wasn’t on the field but in his swing: the bat started and finished at the same point, such was the power he swung through it. Batsmen had hit the ball hard before, but never as often, for as long, with such devastating effect. Sobers’ power, much like the two Richardses who followed, had a psychological effect on bowlers. Batsmen were no longer the ones reacting but now the ones setting the terms.

Javed Miandad took a genius batting mind and turned ODI batting from unthinking slogging and moments of staleness to an art form. Miandad worked out that in all those angles between sweepers and infielders, there weren’t just singles but twos. And that the safest place to hit the ball was over the head of the fielder closest to you. By using these simple methods, the overs before the death overs became a free buffet.

Mushtaq Mohammad, Douglas Marillier and Tillakaratne Dilshan all invented amazing shots. All deserve their part in cricket history, but the next step in batting evolution was the man who used these inventions and put them into a perfect package.

AB de Villiers didn’t start with all these shots. He didn’t even start as a star. Looking back it felt like a slow evolution from flighty, talented batsman to master of the universe.

When he arrived in cricket he wasn’t in school Dilscooping. He has developed his game until there is no place on the field he cannot hit the ball. Made himself so there is no shot that cricket has invented that he is not the master of. There is no kind of bowling that can stop him from scoring a six. He is, as we sit here today, a perfect modern batsman. A beautiful hybrid of all the best batsmen who went before him.

Like Sobers didn’t invent hitting the ball hard and Bradman didn’t invent scoring massive, nothing AB has done is an invention; it is a perfection.


There was a moment during de Villiers’ 99th Test that showed what he could do compared to a normal player. His entire team, and most of the local Indians, could not handle the pitch in the first innings.

His team is caught in this endless pushing and prodding trance. Trying, more hoping, to survive. But when India’s best bowler comes around the wicket to him, instead of showing R Ashwin the respect he deserves, the respect his current bowling demands, AB just casually reverse-sweeps him to the rope.

Perhaps he hadn’t truly noticed the pitch or the situation or the bowler. Or perhaps, as happens often, AB plays out his innings on a separate plane to other people. In his world, Ashwin coming around the wicket bowling on a dangerous dusty pitch was actually some club trundler bowling on a road.


Never once has AB de Villiers had to bat on a sticky-dog wicket. Sticky-dog wickets got put down when covers became cost effective in our sport’s finance. Never once has AB had that pure fear you have when you are facing Fiery Fred, the Demon Spofforth, or that miner from Notts on a pitch that has been doused with rain and then seen some sun, which stopped the ball from playing fair and made it start playing to dismember.

Never once has AB de Villiers had to face up in a Test without a helmet. Or without adequate protection of all sorts of kinds. If he wants, he can choose from any number of guards and pads that didn’t exist for previous players – and even if they had existed, wouldn’t have been worth a damn anyway. He doesn’t have to face Thommo, naked and alone, hoping the Reader’s Digest on his thigh will allow him to walk off the field safely.

Never once has AB de Villiers had to worry about time off work to play. He doesn’t have to do the early shift before making it to the ground. He doesn’t have to wait years between series. He doesn’t have to pay to cover his own injuries. He doesn’t have to worry about eating the wrong food. He doesn’t have to worry about working out his own fitness plans. He doesn’t need to clean his own kit. He doesn’t have to worry about what he’ll do for months on end on a boat. He doesn’t have to worry about expensive phone calls when he misses his family. He doesn’t know what it is like to face Wes Hall with concerns over how he will pay his mortgage on his mind.

But never once did Grace have a team of analysts poring over every single ball he ever faced looking for that one piece of data that could end his day. Never once did Trumper have to deal with a 24-hour news cycle, and his private life becoming his personal life. Never once did Bradman have to deal with social-media trolls trying to imitate him. Never once did Graeme Pollock represent a South Africa that had racial-political selection dilemmas on a daily basis. Never once did Javed Miandad have to slog from ball one, chase ten an over, and risk his health while off balance trying to scoop a yorker past his throat.


If you are good, even really good, and from inside the big three nations, there will be a lot of noise. One good innings can start it. Virat Kohli did it with the IPL. David Warner did it with a series of slogs in a T20 against Dale Steyn. Joe Root with his first Test innings. Usman Khawaja did it with a 37.

Outside cricket’s biggest markets, things move slower. Mitchell Johnson admitted that he hadn’t seen much of Kane Williamson. Shiv Chanderpaul’s career involved endless innings in empty stadia. Younis Khan seems to almost only exist on TV.

This is historical as well. So much rich and interesting cricket history just hasn’t been documented because it didn’t interest England writers or publications at the time. Early South African Test history is spotty at best. With weak touring English teams pitted against what were often horrible South African teams, on matting pitches, it just didn’t grab the attention. It really wasn’t until the 1960s that the cricket world started noticing them.

Aubrey Faulkner, Bruce Mitchell, Hugh Tayfield, Neil Adcock, Dave and Dudley Nourse and Herbie Taylor aren’t names that get mentioned when the greats of the game are mentioned. Yet all were absolute greats of the game, almost invisible in the era before South African cricket grabbed the world, before disappearing with a lot of what-ifs.

Things are no different now. The current Test era of South Africa, where they haven’t lost an overseas Test series since 2006, hasn’t been covered like it would have been in another nation. The South African team, by large an incredibly normal bunch, have just gone about their business. Over a long period they are now the greatest team South Africa have ever had, but you wouldn’t really know that. Their press doesn’t seem to do much hyperbole. The team just plays, well.

Perhaps the fact that they can’t break their ICC tournament hoodoo. Perhaps because they have lost to Australia at home. Perhaps because they have drawn so many series. They haven’t grabbed people’s attention like they should have. As far as Test match eras go, it could well be in the top five ever.

And in many ways, AB is the face of the modern team. Professional. Talented. Adaptable. Focused. Humble. He isn’t taking photos in jacuzzis with random women. He isn’t selling his image rights for record amounts. He isn’t making huge, arrogant statements. He bats. He keeps. He’s polite.

You could imagine some American tourist sitting next to him in business class, and when asked what he does for a living, AB answering with: “I work in sports.”


Batsmen evolve, or even consciously devolve, to get the best out of themselves. Steve Waugh’s hook, Sachin Tendulkar’s cover drive – gone, because staying out there matters.

It means that batsmen get better slowly. There have been cases where a small technical change has set them right overnight, but usually it takes time.

Steve Smith didn’t just became a top Test batsman. He believed in his batting technique when he was out of the team, even when no one else would, and then had a chat with Michael Clarke about how to turn 100 into 200. But all that took a few years.

In 2008 at Lord’s, AB de Villiers was batting with Ashwell Prince. Prince was a battler at Test level, someone who through sheer will got the best out of himself. They had put on a decent partnership. Both were set. De Villiers had not been worried much by England’s bowling, and looked set for a big total. But he flicked the ball mindlessly, needlessly in the air, and was caught at mid-on. Prince fought hard and batted very well with the tail to score a hundred. But AB’s mistake meant that South Africa had to follow on.

According to Mickey Arthur’s book, Taking the Mickey, after stumps, after Graeme Smith had been forced to go out and bat by England again, Smith and Arthur confronted AB. Smith told AB he wasn’t dong justice to his talent or justifying his place in the team, Arthur explained what taking responsibility meant.

The next Test, AB walked out at Headingley with South Africa 143 for 4, 60 behind England’s 203. Prince was batting with him again. Prince made a hundred. AB made 174.

His average was under 40 in both Tests and ODIs before this. Since then he has averaged over 60 in both.

Whatever switch Arthur and Smith found, it completely changed everything. He was switched from Ramprakash mode to Bradman, Headley and Tendulkar mode.


The IPL gets flak from almost all parts, at almost all times. Sometimes it is more than deserved, sometimes it is just the easy target.

But the IPL has done some very important things. South African players, and coaches, have got experience and been well paid. The money that is on offer is important for a country that is not rich in cricket terms. The experience and learning is just as important.

What the IPL has done for cricketers from smaller nations is made their star brighter, and kept in consistently in front of people. Brendon McCullum, Chris Gayle and AB de Villiers have become massive IPL megastars. And that isn’t just a big thing in India; the IPL, and it’s accompanying noise, is a global thing.

In the IPL, AB averages 36. His strike rate is 144. That is a lot of time on TV hitting sixes. Being awesome.

That might not be why he is so respected. Maybe it is the 33 off 220 balls. Or his fourth innings to chase down 400 in Perth. Or his two double-hundreds in Asia. Or the fact he did things in the 2015 World Cup that computer-game players couldn’t do.

The IPL innings might not be as important, or special, but they are louder.


Cricket has slowly been moving towards separating its formats since Dean Jones became the world’s best ODI batsman. From then on, players like Chris Harris, Michael Bevan, Russel Arnold, Nathan Bracken, Jade Dernbach and Lasith Malinga have become specialists in certain skills that made them top limited-overs players. There has, and will always be, players who are just good at cricket.

But for most, they are good or less good, depending on the format they are playing in. That rule does not apply to players of the level of AB de Villiers. If it involves cricket, AB would be great at it.

That is not true of all of his contemporaries. Dale Steyn might be the first fast bowler you pick in your Test team, but he wouldn’t be in your ODI team. MS Dhoni’s keeping, batting and calculating are flawless in limited-overs, but in Tests he has nowhere near the same impact. Even Mitchell Johnson has to take a back seat in ODIs where Mitchell Starc is concerned.

Since the 2008 Headingley Test, de Villiers averages over 60 in Tests and ODIs © Getty Images
That isn’t the case for AB. If you were picking one batsman to represent you in Tests, ODIs and T20s right now, it would be him. If you were just picking one batsman to represent you in Tests, then another in ODIs, he’d be the guy you picked, and despite his T20 international record, he’d still be on your shortlist for that as well.

He’s not a great all-round batsman. He’s great in every single discipline. Not good. Not better than average. Not able to adapt. But instantly, and perfectly, suited to every single part of it.

You can break it all down as well. There is no part of batting that he isn’t great at. No shot in which he isn’t one of the best. Not one facet that he cannot excel at.

Continent by continent, format by format, day by day, shot by shot, AB de Villiers is great.


The best Australian and West Indian batsmen of the eras in which those teams led the world always had it slightly easier than others. They didn’t have to face their own in the highest-pressure situations. Sure, Viv Richards faced a young Curtly Ambrose in the Red Stripe from time to time. And Ricky Ponting occasionally tried to loft Shane Warne back over his head. But it wasn’t often, it was barely seen by people outside the small domestic-geek world, and it wasn’t high-stakes.

That world was exploded by the IPL. Now mate v mate, as they promoted domestic cricket in Australia, is big business. And while AB de Villiers may not know what it is like to face Vernon, Morne and Dale on a green one at Cape Town, he does get to play against them at times in the IPL.

When Steyn was defending a reasonable total for Sunrisers Hyderabad against AB’s Royal Challengers Bangalore, he knew AB was the wicket he needed. Twenty-eight runs in two overs was the chase, but at five wickets down, AB’s wicket should win the match. Every single ball he faces takes you further from victory.

The first ball was straight, on a good length. It was a slower ball. AB swept it for six. The next ball, Steyn went for the yorker. It was a 90mph yorker. But AB was back in his crease. He needed a foot or two, and he turned the ball into something he could punch straight back over Steyn’s head for a six. The next two balls were a leg-bye getting him off strike, and then a single getting him back on.

Steyn changed the entire field. He knew AB. He knew what he might do in this mood. Mid-off came up. The ball was full and straight, and AB was set up to hit it to mid-on, but his hands changed late, like he suddenly remembered where the field was, and the ball flew over mid-off’s head.

The field changed again. Fine leg came up. There was a shimmy from AB. He faked that he was going to give himself room, and then he ran across the crease until his feet were touching the wide demarcation line. His bat was now off the pitch. Steyn was full and straight just outside off stump. It looked like AB was scrambling, like he was running too far, like he was about to slip. Like he had made a mistake.

Then AB paused the world. He stopped time, he found balance, he erased what was happening, and from two feet inside the line of the ball he swept Dale Steyn.

Into the second tier at the Chinnaswamy.

The commentators screamed. The crowd screamed. The scoreboard screamed. Even in the IPL hyperbole, where even the most mediocre can get screamed, this noise stood out. This shot stood out. This man.

Steyn’s over went for 24 of the 28 required. He went back into the field and didn’t look like the world’s best Test bowler but a lost man. Eventually he just joined in the clapping. There was nothing left to do.


On the eve of AB de Villiers’ 100th Test, he became the world’s No. 1 Test batsman. He is also the world’s No. 1 ODI batsman. In T20 cricket, internationally he’s not starred; domestically he’s a beast.

But even while he has spent the last seven years in beast mode, he hasn’t been universally feted, like he should have been. Lots of things have happened since AB started being amazing, let alone since he became No. 1 in the Test rankings for the first time in 2012. Sachin was still playing then; Ricky Ponting as well. Kumar Sangakkara and Younis Khan found golden form. Michael Clarke just exploded. Alastair Cook could bat for weeks on end. Brendon McCullum started doing amazing things. Kevin Pietersen, Virender Sehwag and David Warner have grabbed attention.

This is the era of flat pitches, small boundaries, weak attacks, and those damned big bats. Everyone is scoring. Many of them are doing it quickly.

That is not even mentioning that in his own South African side were three of the best batsmen his country had ever produced. One of whom, Mr Kallis, was the greatest cricketer in his nation’s history.

Then, just as we were about to move on to the part where we all are fixated on AB, the next wave came storming in.

Virat Kohli in limited-overs cricket is ranked No. 2 in both formats. Kane Williamson is ranked at three in ODIs and five in Tests. And Joe Root and Steve Smith have been swapping the Test No. 1 ranking between them. Even outside the bigger names, almost every country seems to have someone with serious talent at a young age: Darren Bravo, Mominul Haque, Angelo Mathews and Asad Shafiq.

None of them are AB. But there are only so many inches, so many tweeters, so many hours in the day. Sleep through his 31-ball hundred, and amazing as it is, it is just a number. The day before it, there was a Big Bash game, Nepal played UAE, Ireland played Dublin. The same day, Australia played India. The next day Scotland and Ireland. Even if you do go back, it is amazing, but it looks the same as any one of the many YouTube highlight packages of AB. Almost cartoony. And considering he does it again and again, if you don’t see them, your mind starts to squish them all into one.

These amazing innings, from AB and others, are just part of cricket’s endless news cycle.


During the 2013-14 summer of Mitchell Johnson, AB de Villiers faced him in Pretoria. Devastating as Johnson had been against England, bowling deliveries that modern science tells us were over 150kph, and felt over 160kph, he was even scarier in that first innings in Centurion. Ryan McLaren was lucky to leave with his life. The ball seemed to be past South African batsmen before they were aware it had been bowled.

South Africa’s second highest score was 25. De Villiers made 91. As fast as Johnson was, as brutal, as unruly, as unimaginable, as dragony, AB DeVilliers just handled it. At times it was as if he could stop the ball midway down the pitch, like Neo in The Matrix, and decide what to do next, and then just restart the world and dispatch the ball.

AB has time that doesn’t exist.

Steyn has made the Neo comparison before. Maybe the Wachowski brothers were cricket fans, because before bullet time, it was the great batsmen who made time stop. Who made the world fade away as their brains thought about complex equations in the milliseconds before playing their shot.

There is a moment, for all batsmen, when everything has kind of already happened, and now it is the ball in charge, not the batsman. But the greats just get longer before that happens. The scrappy batsman is always just getting his foot onto the ground just in time; the great, his foot was there waiting. There are times when AB, like the best before him, seems to know what is coming next. Science, through Tim Noakes’ research, has taught us that batsmen read the bowlers far more than even the cricketers themselves knew. That is why you can face Shoaib Akhtar at 100mph, but a bowling machine at 100mph is unplayable.

When AB is in full form, it feels like he just knows what is going to happen next. He is there so early. How did he know it would be the full ball outside off? Was it the field, was it the wrist, was it in the bowler’s eyes? Did he see it in the bowler’s last few steps? Did he know before the bowler turned at the top of his mark? Did he know several balls in advance? Did he know the morning of the game every ball that would be delivered?

For a normal batsman, it is the science of batting, for AB it is the magic of batting.


It is unmistakably a modern pop-rock combo. You can feel the drummer’s alienation, the lead guitarist’s disdain for everyone, the bass player’s insouciance, and the other guitarist’s utter usefulness.

There is also a singer. He’s clean-cut, good-looking, wearing jeans and a check shirt, but there is little rock about him. There is no edge. No interesting look. Not unshaven. Good-looking.

The lyrics are delivered in a non-threatening soft-rock way, but with the odd Southern African accent. The whole thing has just enough red to impress a grandparent.

The lyrics of the song include, “Be the best that you can be”, “To believe in anything, you dream”, “To live it, to breathe it”, “Just feel it in your heart”, “Make a noise, just be the one”, “Show them who you are”, “Stand up tall and make a noise” and “Just be the one.”

This isn’t very rock’n roll. It’s hard to imagine Bruce Springsteen, Ian MacKaye or Bon Scott delivering them. The believe-you-can message slaps in you the face repeatedly. As such, there is nothing remarkable about this song.

But it is remarkable because of whose song it is, because the singer is AB de Villiers. This is like a look inside his brain. His personal mantra. You can almost imagine him whispering it to himself between balls. Maybe it doesn’t make him massively exciting, but this song shows his vision of courage, of single mindedness, of how to achieve.

It also shows that AB wants to be a rock star. Based on this song, he probably won’t be. With a bat, he already is.


The bats aren’t bigger. The batsmen are bigger. The batsmen are different.

They pump iron. They work on twitch fibres. They strengthen their cores. They transfer their weight. They switch-hit. They clear their front leg. They range-hit. They study tapes. They hit everywhere. They back their instincts. They attack from ball one. They are fearless.

They do all that to be as good as AB de Villiers.


4006 days of Graeme Smith

Graeme Smith trampled the grass between the slip cordon and the pitch, until he was level with David Warner. Then he let go with some straight talking about Joe Root and other home truths for Warner. Smith stood barely a metre from the batsman, towering above, but looking in another direction. Then, when he was sure Warner, and anyone with access to the stump mic, had got the message, he strolled, letting play continue once he was back in his spot at slip. That was Biff.

A short time later Morne Morkel was trapped in one of his overs from hell. Smith saw it, and ran up to help his lost fast bowler. He gave him the large paw on the shoulder, and deciding that Morne could use a bit more support, he stayed at mid-off until he was satisfied Morne was okay. Only then did he return to fill the massive hole he left at slip. That was Biff.

The squat is the same. So are the massive shoulders that his massive jaw is virtually on top of, clearly visible beneath a massive helmet. The arm guard is pointed straight at the umpire. His toes bobble up and down. There are two precise slow taps of the bat. Knees bent, back hunched like he is too big for his equipment, too big to even be that good at batting. He holds the bat like only he could lift it, not so he can swing it, but more so he can drop it on the ball.

And he faces Glenn McGrath. McGrath, the seasoned veteran who still looks like a boy, bowling to the confident boy with the man’s body. In any sort of hand-to-hand combat, McGrath would likely be crushed. But with the ball, against a young kid thrown in at No. 3, McGrath wins often. Caught by Ponting, for 3.

In the second innings, Smith fights back. He turns balls from off stump to the leg side with that twist of his arms you will know so much you could imitate it drunk at 3am. When facing Shane Warne, he’ll lean forward, eager to show he is not afraid of Warne. Then, when the ball suits him and he gets some air, he’ll race at Warne, stamping his feet and lofting over mid-on with a beautiful lack of elegance. Eventually Warne will take the brash kid’s wicket. Caught behind, by Gilchrist, for 68.

At Newlands, in 2002, that kid making his Test debut was dismissed twice, by four legends of the game.

Smith’s form continued and he thought, rightfully, that he should have been in South Africa’s squad to play the 2003 World Cup at home. And he wanted to make his point. He did it by demanding he captain Western Province against South Africa in a warm-up match. A bold move from someone his age. What was supposed to be an intra-SA friendly match turned darker and tougher when Smith demanded that his players take it seriously and take down the main team.

It could have gone horribly wrong. Considering the players on both sides, it probably should have. Western Province won by seven wickets and almost 20 overs to spare. That’s not a contest. In the later games, which Smith did not captain, the senior team smashed their opposition. They had been burned once.

Smith’s biggest impact might have been when he and Shaun Pollock went toe to toe during one of those matches. The issue was trivial. Smith was upset that Pollock wasn’t adhering to the fielding conditions of an ODI match. He wanted it done properly, Pollock was just happy to have a warm-up. Here was a player in and out of the national team standing in the face of Pollock, a legend and captain. That is something people notice.

Smith had captained Gauteng school teams many times, and had experience in a few other senior games. But basically, that game he won for Western Province and him leading South Africa A in a comeback 2-1 win against a good Zimbabwe side was about it. And Shaun Pollock was captaining South Africa in the World Cup. Graeme Smith wasn’t even in the squad.

Hosting the World Cup was a monumental deal for South Africa. They wanted people to see that they were growing, that they were changing and that their part of the world was getting it right. On one day of the tournament, someone who brought the old South African flag into a ground was turfed out. None of that, people are watching, we must be at our best.

Their team wasn’t. They were so bad it even made news in the US when they crashed out of the tournament before it really began. Smith came in for three games, after Jonty Rhodes was ruled out with injury, and averaged 40. In Durban, he made 35 opening the batting against Sri Lanka. That’s not what people remember from that game. They remember that South Africa got their Duckworth-Lewis calculation wrong. They became a laughing stock to the world, but at home they were upset.

So upset that despite being the second-ranked ODI team, the second-ranked Test team and having won 13 of their last 16 Test series, Pollock was out. They needed someone new.

It was stupid and reactionary. A jumbo panic button to stop the yelling. Cricket administrators are nothing if not adept at offering sacrificial lambs for the press and fans to slaughter. Graham Ford was upset Pollock was gone, “Polly was a soft target. All I can conclude is that people hit on him in order to save their own jobs.”

Former South Africa coach, the late Bob Woolmer, said during that World Cup, “There is a vacuum in South African cricket. South Africa is not producing the type of cricketers it used to anymore. Many cricketers, both black and white, are not sure what the future holds for them.” It wasn’t just Woolmer thinking this. Allan Donald and Rhodes were done. Gary Kirsten was next. Pollock was embarrassed.

It wasn’t a vacuum, but a monumental chasm. And it needed to be filled.

A vetting committee to help find a captain was formed. It was the national professional selection advice committee, or something like that. They didn’t have many options. Kirsten was not going to last long. Mark Boucher was a wicketkeeper. Jacques Kallis was who he was. All they had was a young lad who had presence.

Presence is like an X-factor, hard to explain, but Smith had this immense presence when he was in front of you. Monstrous confidence radiated through him. Somehow he comforted the leaders of South African cricket, and they completely forgot their history as a conservative cricket nation, and Smith bustled his way through.

Smith was the youngest captain of his country. Almost 50 years earlier Ian Craig had been the same for Australia – a teen prodigy who had taken the job when Australia desperately needed someone. The idea was he would lead a youngish side into the promised land. He had already toured England, and captained New South Wales to a Shield win, and with six Tests to his name he took over the main job. He was practically the same age as Smith when he took over.

Despite having no quota system, a solid year of captaining older men behind him, no 24-hour news cycle or the internet, Craig, the young batting genius, captained in only one Test series – series he won, but in which he made no real runs and tried to drop himself for the last match. Due to illness and bad form, and without the backing of senior players, Craig was ruined.

There were some in South Africa who were worried that something similar would happen to Smith. So there was a compromise that was considered, a thought that Smith could be an apprentice to Pollock. Pollock said no, Smith said no. They were different men. Pollock backed Smith. Smith backed Smith.

Thirty-five days after his Western Province team had beaten South Africa, Smith was captain of his country.

He had barely played outside South Africa – a few ODIs in Sri Lanka – and he knew little of international cricket. But Smith knew he wanted to conquer it. He knew he wanted the team to lead, and with eight Tests and 22 ODIs to his name, he went about it.

Smith quickly distanced himself from disgraced (but still loved) former captain Cronje at his first press conference. What was left of Cronje’s team was also leaving. He also distanced himself from Pollock as a leader.

Pollock was laid back and magically gifted. It had been bred in him. Smith was a worker and his team would be more like him. South Africa would get to the ground earlier, and train harder and longer. More would be made of the nationalistic side of playing for the country. Smith wanted his men as inspired and prepared as he was.

Smith also said stupid things in the early days. People didn’t like him for it. He was not the only 22-year old to say stupid things, but he wasn’t a normal 22-year old. Australia seemed to hate him on first sight and felt betrayed that he mentioned their sledging in public. Some in South Africa felt he was more mouth than talent. And he arrived in England full of words.

It was in England that his career as captain really started. With Matthew Hayden sledging him from many time zones away, and Nasser Hussain’s massive insult of “wotshisname”, Smith was learning that being captain involved more than just turning up half an hour earlier at the ground. So he reacted in a brutal way. He scored 277. His second double-century in 11 Tests. In his 12th, he would score another. Hussain retired. Hayden looked silly.

From there, Smith built an empire based around the all-round brilliance of Kallis, champion bowlers of different eras, two of the sexiest batting talents in modern cricket. He balanced all this on his frame. No matter how good the other players were, or how amazing their feats were, everyone knew who the leader was. He was at the front, and hard to miss.

Smith made a bunch of runs in the second best chase in Tests and the best chase in ODIs. He added Michael Vaughan and Andrew Strauss to England captains he saw off. He was in charge when South Africa were the No. 1 ODI team. He was in charge when they were the No. 1 Test Team. And it was under Smith that Australia’s reign as the best team finally ended.

He did it all while opening the batting. When Smith is on the field, he has a little telltale sign that he is thinking hard, or something is going wrong for him. He slips his cap back a bit on his head, and rubs the front of his hair. Unlike most captains, he hasn’t gone grey or even started to bald, despite that hefty duke rubbing his head several times a day. Then, after all that thinking, Smith goes out to bat. When he does that he averages 48.

With a dodgy technique, a frame too large for batting, political pressures on selection, the chief executive who gave him the job sacked, the pressure of captaincy for over a decade, a few coaches, a public split with an ‘it’ girl, growing into a man, dealing with a friend’s career-ending injury, choking at World Cups, a long-distance relationship, and kids with illnesses, Smith still kept that average. That is a feat of a hungry giant.

But nothing is ever enough. In 2011, South African crowds booed Smith shortly after his team lost the World Cup quarter-final to New Zealand. A forensic examination of that South African team suggested a middle order that could be a problem under extreme temperatures. But, they had Hashim Amla, Smith, AB de Villiers and Kallis in the top four. Chasing a total of 221, I mean, come on. South Africa had tried to promote the phrase ‘C is for Champions’. But after that, well, C went back to its old friend Choke. Smith was one hell of a leader, but even he could not carry his team to a World Cup victory, or even a final.

After the game, the South African players went home to show how sad they were at the airport. Smith did not. He went to Ireland. This seemed to infuriate everyone. It would turn out that he was doing to so seal the deal with the current Mrs. Deane-Smith. But he didn’t take his punishment from the fans.

So the most successful captain in South Africa’s history, the man who took his team to No. 1, who slayed Australia and burnt down English captains, was booed by his crowd. Some never forgave Smith for being brash when he was young. Others simply never stopped loving the confessed match-fixer Hansie Cronje (voted 11th greatest South African in a SABC poll in 2004). Even in Port Elizabeth, where Smith orchestrated a comeback win against the odds, there was a man wearing a Cronje t-shirt in the crowd. Cronje wasn’t the batsman Smith was. He wasn’t the leader Smith was. He wasn’t even the man that Smith was.

But if you search the internet with questions about who the better captain was, you’ll get bizarre answers like “Hansie WAS the best, unfortunately due to circumstances apparently beyond his control … he was forced to do the ‘devils’ work.” And ” I suppose it also depends on whether you like Graeme Smith or not! Personally I cannot stand him. I loved Hansie and he was a brilliant sportsman”. It’s hard to argue that Cronje was not a good tactician in the field, certainly more adventurous than Smith, but Smith averaged 12 runs more, beat Australia in Australia and England in England when Cronje never did, lost the same amount of World Cups, has a similar win-loss record, captained a team to No. 1 in two forms of the game and never ever sold out his country for a leather jacket.

And Smith did it all after starting as the youngest captain in his nation’s history, and then becoming the longest serving.

Smith has been in charge for 4006 days. In that time, a boy band could form, become No. 1, tour the world, split up to do solo stuff, end up in rehab, and then reform as retro throwback to appeal to their original fans. In 2003, we didn’t know what an iPhone was, there was no Facebook and Julian Assange was an angry Melbourne hacker. There are 15-year old kids who have grown up only knowing Smith as captain. He has longevity, results and integrity. He isn’t perfect, and has certainly spent years trying to prove that left-hand batsmen aren’t actually more aesthetically appealing than right-hand batsmen. But he deserves to be respected as brutal, ugly monolith of world cricket. The large guy who was always there.

Since the age of 10, Smith had been saying he wanted to captain his country. He put goals on his fridge, and he accomplished them. Then he helped his country finally live up to its potential, while guiding a whole generation of players. But he isn’t that kid anymore, he now has his own kids, one with an illness whom he needs to spend more time with. He isn’t the angry young man demanding to get into the team, he isn’t the bullish guy spraying people at press conferences, he is the old guy looking at a quieter life with his family.

Smith barged out onto the ground. His partner well behind him. The crowd stood. The officials rushed. The cameramen buzzed. Everyone looked miniature in comparison. Like a giant ape climbing a New York building, all eyes were on him. Smith the giant.

Australia waited in formation to honour him. The giant squeezed through them and out onto the pitch. His Western Province wicket. Clutching his GM chunk of tree, he would lead his country one last time. Them always behind him. He’ led. He led for a long time. He led well. The brutish behemoth. Biff leads. Then Biff leaves.

Leaving a tremendous hole that would take more than one man to fill.

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surviving Mornzilla

Short ball.

Ribs. 40.6.

Morne Morkel bowled two of his first three balls to Clarke full. He bowled all three over the wicket. That was a massive waste of time and effort. That over didn’t start when Steyn went off after one ball, and it didn’t start with Morkel’s over the wicket ball in the corridor, it started when Morkel came around the wicket and slammed the ball into Clarke’s ribs. Clarke didn’t play it, he just clutched it to himself like an injured bird. There was now little chance of Morkel coming back over the wicket. Or Clarke getting tested with the full swinging ball.

Short ball. Short ball. Elgar over.

Arm. 42.3

Morkel now had his aim right. It was somewhere between the arm pit and left nipple. Clarke was moving back and across and into the missile’s trajectory. He was a slow-moving target, and Morkel hit him right on the arm. It looked like, to paraphrase Clarke himself, “a broken f**ken arm”. Which is something that one of the South Africans might have mentioned to him. The super slow motion looked like a shock ad to teach you the lessons of not wearing arm guards. At the end of the over, when Clarke was touched by the physio, it looked like he’d rather not be.

Warner tried to protect his captain by keeping strike a couple of times. One ball that Warner called two on Clarke just jogged the one to get back on strike. Clarke had moved back to No. 4. Clarke hadn’t made any runs. Clarke would not hide at the non-strikers end.

Short ball. Short ball. Elgar over. Short ball. Short ball.

Shoulder and head. 44.3.

Clarke had had enough of standing upright and being hit, so he dropped to get under another ball on an armpit-nipple length. This time the ball didn’t quite get up, but Clarke couldn’t see as he had turned his head away, and the ball crashed into his shoulder. From there it ricocheted up into his jaw. Clarke tossed his bat, stumbled off the pitch and was surrounded by worried South Africans. None more so than Morne Morkel. Seemingly everyone within Cricket Australia with a first aid certificate came out to check on the captain. The cameras found Shane Warne looking worried on the balcony, an odd twist on the grieving wife shot. They decideed that Clarke is okay. After a few minutes, he faced up again.

Hand. 44.4.

The ball was straight back at him, Clarke flinched early, he took his eye off it, this time it hit his hand and flew straight up in the air. Clarke had no idea where the ball is. JP Duminy rushed in like a mad man from a deepish short leg, the ball beat him to the ground, but went very close to the stumps. Clarke could have been caught, Clarke could have been bowled, and Clarke could have had a broken hand. Clarke is under attack.

Gut. 44.5.

Clarke was now clearly over just being hit and decided to try the attacking option. The pull shot to get away from the short ball worked for him in Adelaide when England tried the same thing. This time he just sort of got hit around the gut as the ball ended up behind him.

When Warner faced a short ball from Morkel it ended up smashing it’s way to the fine leg boundary between two fielders. The difference was as great between Warner and Clarke as it was between Mornzilla and Elgar Smurf. Everyone at the ground wanted to fast forward the Elgar overs or any balls when Warner was facing. No one even worried much about Steyn’s injury.

Short ball. Elgar over. Short ball. Short ball. Short ball. Short ball. Elgar over. Short ball. Morne taken off.

Thumb. 86.3.

With the new ball Morkel achieved some sideways movement. And for a while, he pretended that Clarke was just another batsman. Clarke even pushed one through mid-on in what looked like very civilised cricket. More shockingly, Clarke smacked a pull through midwicket. But Clarke wasn’t just another batsman, and Morne went back to the beautiful barbaric nature of armpits around the wicket. Leg slip came back in smelling blood. And Morkel produced it with another ball that almost ripped the top of Clarke’s thumb off. Much time was taken to reattach the thumb nail. Blood was wiped away. And then Clarke took any chance he could to get off strike for the next ball, surviving a possible run-out and getting a well earned five.

Finally Clarke could rest at the non-strikers end. He had nothing left to prove, and nothing left to injure. He had survived.

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An afternoon in Port Elizabeth: a thorough retelling of an epic destruction

The first ball after tea Alex Doolan edged Vernon Philander behind to AB de Villiers. It could be out, it should be out, but the cameras say it could have bounced. Then Doolan edges to slip, and it doesn’t carry either. Doolan looks like a walking knicker. Finally Morne Morkel gets an edge from him that carries.

Shaun Marsh comes and goes, for a pair. He has now scored less than four in more than half his Test innings. On other days, this would be talked about much.

Michael Clarke has not made runs since Adelaide. He edges first ball. It doesn’t carry. You have to really earn a caught behind the wicket right now. Steyn’s first over after tea. He looks like that Dale Steyn. Angry and hungry. Clarke just guides one to slip after being worked over by reverse swing. Smith barely arrives at the crease and is out.

At 126 without loss it sounded like de Villiers shouting “150 for 4 here”. De Villiers was wrong, it was 156 for 4. With four wickets down, you could smell the fifth day fading.

South Africa were now throwing it all on the line, Australia’s saviour in the Ashes was allowed on strike with fielders on the boundary for Chris Rogers. Oh, Rogers, he had barely scored. He had barely looked like going out. He was just there.

Steyn could virtually taste Brad Haddin’s wicket. After four balls of strike, he removed his middle stump with a ball Haddin knew where it would pitch; with a ball Haddin knew how it would swing; with a ball that Haddin could have predicted an hour before it happened. Haddin still lost his middle stump.

Mitch came out with his massive batting average against South Africa. Mitch missed a short swinging delivery from Steyn by roughly 4.7 kilometres. Then he had a ball pole vault out of the footmarks and take the shoulder of the bat. Mitch was being attacked by ground and foot.

Smith was now so sure this was the last day he was throwing reviews away. The fifth day was dead to everyone.

Johnson stays out of the line to one from Philander. He tricks Richard Illingworth, but South Africa review anyway; damn you day five. They are right. Johnson is out.

South Africa have given up on bowling out Rogers. So Steyn bowls wide to Rogers to keep him off strike. It is called a wide. Morkel hits something down the legside so South Africa throw another review at it: not out. The umpires are staying pretty sharp despite the yelling and craziness. The clouds are now encroaching on the pitch like a Fritz Lang baddie.

How many wickets down do you need to be to enforce the extra half an hour? Everyone has a different answer. It’s not a real thing. It could be seven, maybe its eight. But Ryan Harris and Rogers look settled as the minutes creep up to 1759, one minute from the normal close.

Morkel is down the leg side again, he seems to be working to some sort of leg-side-or-be-damned plan. This time Rogers has wood on it, de Villiers has dived like a superhero. But did it carry? South Africa think yes. Has it bounced, maybe, yes, maybe no. The sun seems to be on every TV screen in the ground, the glare makes people doubt themselves. While it is all happening, it is beyond six. It’s either bounced or been foreshortened. Will that be it?

Aleem Dar decides it is not out. But the umpires on the field decide that the extra half an hour can be called. Rogers is livid, he complains uselessly. He deserves it to be the close of play. Australia and South Africa deserve to have an extra half hour.

Steyn is bowling to Harris, and there is another edge down the leg side that is almost caught. Then Harris hits the ball into the ground, it bounces high in the air (higher than any delivery in the match), it is not going near the stumps, but he hits it away, and does it very badly. It hits the back of his bat and almost goes onto the stumps.

Two balls later Steyn hits Harris high and leg side. South Africa are convinced it is out. Kumar Dharmasena takes forever to compute, then he gives it out. Harris reviews. It is still out. Only just. Harris keeps looking at Dharmasena as he walks off.

Rogers faces a full over from JP Duminy. Perhaps he’s bowling to get through the over quickly to allow Steyn a go at Peter Siddle. He cannot get off strike. The last ball he tries to take a run, but decides only a run out would happen. So he says no. The sun goes behind a cloud. It suddenly gets very dark.

Siddle gets stuck with Steyn. An inside edge happens, but safely. Then Siddle hits out on the off side, he takes the single, as Duminy stops it by flopping on the ball with his ribs. He can barely breathe. The phsyio comes out, but there is no time, he is sent back. The light metre comes out, and South Africa can’t knock that back. Duminy is in massive pain. He keeps running into the wrong position because he can’t listen to anyone through the pain. He’s taking up seconds and light.

Steyn gets angry and smashes Rogers in the back of the helmet and it goes for four leg byes. He wants Rogers on strike so Philander can bowl to Siddle. He wins. Steyn is down on his haunches at square leg after his last couple of bouncers, barely breathing. He has bowled nine overs, he looks like he has bowled a hundred. You just know he will try bowl another.

Siddle handles Philander very well. Very, very well. It now looks like Steyn or nothing.

Rogers faces Duminy, who has done well to recover, but both teams are playing like tomorrow will not happen. Rogers pushes the ball wide of mid-off, to the right of Alviro Petersen, who earlier in the session was fielding like he was in a coma. Now he is awake, picks it up, flicks it and hits the stumps. It looks out. South Africa are sure it is. The first replays show Rogers well short when the ball hits the stump. South Africa get the thumbs up and celebrate. But for drama, the bail takes a year to come off. Dar has noticed this. It takes maybe two years for the bail to come off. And in that time, maybe Rogers is in. There are about 27 replays. Dar has seen enough, he gives it out.

Rogers, who played with ease alongside David Warner, and then hung on to the wreckage of the Australian order to stay afloat has run himself out in the dark, in the final minutes. Steyn, as buggered as he is, runs over and shakes his hand. So does Smith.

It is Siddle and Nathan Lyon, better than most Nos. 10 and 11. They can bat. They are okay. They need to face less than two overs. It is now darker than before. Siddle does well against Duminy to end the over. He even pushes into the covers for a two.

At the other end Steyn takes off his hat, goes to the end of his mark. He will give it one more over. But Illingworth and Dharmasena are alternating on who they help. They decide it is too dark. Instead of facing Steyn, Lyon will face Dean Elgar. The man who called himself a pie chucker at the end of the first day. Left-arm orthodox. The very opposite of Steyn in practically every way.

The first ball is an actual pie, and Lyon had enough time to eat it. The second ball is better, but Lyon plays it well. The third is a quicker ball, it’s wide and full and Lyon just leaves. The fourth, the fourth.

It is short of a length on the stumps, it spins, it holds up, Lyon is hit on the pad. Lyon is OUT. SOUTH AFRICA WIN. DEAN ELGAR HAS TAKEN A WICKET.

Lyon stands there as Elgar mounts his team-mates, they laugh, they smile, Lyon stares. Unimportant replay show a possible edge and problems with height.

Thirty minutes later, Lyon is in the changing room, still staring, still unable to change anything.

South Africa have won. Dean Elgar has taken the wicket.

In 36.4 overs, South Africa have taken nine wickets. They have beaten Australia. They have beaten the apocalyptic rain. And they have made Lyon stare.

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4 years. 3 balls. 2 wickets. Wayne Parnell.

To fix Wayne Parnell, Vincent Barnes used some rope.

Barnes was at one time South Africa’s bowling coach but now he is involved with the high performance squad, and something had to be done to get higher performances out of Parnell. The young talent had been lost in a sea of professional shirts. Delhi Daredevils, Eastern Province, Kent, Pune Warriors, Sussex and the Warriors have had their piece of Parnell. And he is only 24.

Somewhere between airport lounges, he lost what they all wanted, and South Africa cricket was losing him as well.

Early in his career, which started when he was still 17, it looked like Parnell was going to be a long-term hit. A fast-bowling left-hander who could get movement and bat a bit. Of recent times his batting had disappeared. His bowling had lost its accuracy and movement. And South Africa simply moved on.

Marchant de Lange, Kyle Abbott, Ryan McLaren, Lonwabo Tsotsobe and Rory Kleinveldt have all been used while Parnell was out of Test cricket. Not to mention Vernon Philander, who has fitted 100 wickets at better than 20 into that timeframe. If any team in world cricket could walk away from someone like Parnell, it was South Africa.

But Kallis is gone, so things have changed quickly. So despite only two First Class matches with some success this year, he found himself in a squad to play Australia. And four years and three days after his last Test for South Africa, Parnell was running into bowl on a pitch the Australia bowlers and South Africa batsman had gone out of their way to prove had less life in it than a dime store mannequin. Australia took two wickets with seam, Parnell was the fourth seamer. It could have gone very wrong.

This is a bowler who has found himself in some trouble in the past. He was sucked in by the good life of cricket. He was in the South Africa team at 19, playing for Kent at the same age. He had money and a bright future, you can see how he found himself at a raided rave in India. His heart even had an irregular beat at one stage, putting even more doubt into him coming back to International cricket.

Parnell has changed. Young players who show promise often disappear just as quickly. If they are really good you hope they either find a mentor, or fix themselves. Parnell has had both. With some rope and cones to correct his run-up, Barnes has clearly got him bowling very well. He looks upright and relaxed at the crease, and if you can get movement on this pitch you must have a superior wrist.

But Parnell has also clearly changed himself. He has a new faith, one that means he doesn’t want certain sponsor logos on his shirt. At 24 he has tasted something that he hadn’t at 19: failure. So now the new bowler is back, having seen off two others in the squad who have been used in his absence with only eight first-class wickets this season.

For a seasoned Test bowler, looking at this pitch was like looking at a hard day waiting to happen. For a young guy getting a surprise second chance after being out of Test cricket for a sixth of his life, it must have looked like heaven.

The second delivery he bowled was left alone.

The first ball squared up Alex Doolan from a good length. South Africa had run out of options with Doolan and in one ball the guy with a first-class average of 32.94 and a huge collection of frequent flyer points had taken Australia’s new No. 3.

The third ball was full, it drew Shaun Marsh into a shot, then it moved away, more than virtually all the sideways movement achieved by Australia’s bowlers combined, and he had more wickets than any other seamer in the match.

Later he would come back in and, after wasting an over with short balls to Nathan Lyon, he was right back in there and should have taken this third wicket (making him more successful than Peter Siddle, Ryan Harris and even the mighty Mitchell Johnson combined) only for JP Duminy to drop Lyon at gully. Australia found no edges that carried to anyone, Parnell took three.

In six overs he out-bowled the world’s top four, according to the ICC rankings, including the best (Dale Steyn) and the most in-form (Johnson).

He might not take another wicket this Test but by bowling as well as he did, he has already given his side a chance of winning a game that people were already marking down as a dull and dreary draw. His hair made everyone interested, his wickets kept them that way. Suddenly the option to pick a fourth seamer wasn’t a mistake, but a masterstroke.

It was a long four years. A short three balls. And a glorious two wickets. It might be a long time before he gets four years off again.

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