Genius is an overused word. It’s certainly an abused word in the sporting world. But there really is no other way to describe South Africa’s AB de Villiers if the parameters of the word are confined to cricket and, more specifically, the discipline of batting.
Defining genius in the sporting sense is, of course, a subjective exercise.
Statistics and numbers will lend weight to an argument for or against anointing someone as a genius, but that’s only one thread of the discourse.
In tennis, Novak Djokovic is not referred to as a genius, but Roger Federer is.
Djokovic’s record is at the very least as good as Federer’s, if not better, and he will almost certainly end his career with more titles than the great Swiss.
But his style is less fluid and less graceful and therefore less … genius.
It’s a debate that will rage on and will never be fully resolved.
That’s the way it is with genius: the beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Back to AB, though.
There are few people who watch cricket with more than a passing interest who are unaware of both De Villiers’s reputation as a sensational batsman and the attending awe of his effortless style.
He does things with a bat that few have ever done, and even fewer have done with such consistency in all the modes of the game.
If AB needed to buckle down and see out a particularly difficult period in a Test, he simply closed the taps and wore the bowlers down.
In one-day international (ODI) cricket, he splits fields and creates shots that aren’t in any coaching manual.
And, in T20 cricket, he takes the ODI model further by using his feet and lightning hands
to fashion angles and add power other mere mortals simply don’t have the talent to extract.
Field placings are meaningless and bowlers lines and lengths almost irrelevant when De Villiers is in the zone.
Like all humans, De Villiers fails from time to time – genius isn’t faultless or flawless.
But when he’s in full flow he not only adds runs, thereby increasing his team’s chances of winning, he brings joy and beauty to sport.
In many ways, that is the very essence of what makes the geniuses rise that little higher than others who are only touching genius.
The aesthetic pleasure of seeing a sporting genius at work is as captivating as results.
Think Lionel Messi, Simone Biles, Dan Carter, Tiger Woods and Sugar Ray Leonard.
They sometimes lost, but they never ceased to be anything other than beautiful to watch.
At his best and most focused, it feels as though De Villiers bends time and space to suit his will; to work for his needs.
Of course, science will tell us that is nonsense and his ability occurs because of his
superior eyesight, or depth perception, or fast twitch muscle fibres working in unison to create art.
I prefer to simply think of it as someone who does have the ability to reshape the space-time continuum for a brief moment.
In an interview in the early 2000s, Woods spoke of how, when he was deeply engaged,
it would feel that putting lines revealed themselves as if he were playing a video game. He was that deeply in sync with his craft.
I believe AB has those attributes too – as do all sporting geniuses.
They occasionally rise to ethereal heightened moments that they cannot fully explain or channel at will. But they happen. And even when they don’t, they still play their chosen sport with an effortlessness that cannot be taught.
At 37, De Villiers’s powers should be on the wane. Instead, it appears, based on the Indian Premier League (IPL), if anything, he is improving. His form in the current IPL, in which he has scored a total of 204 runs in five innings off only 117 balls at an average of 68, indicates that a recall to the Proteas could be imminent.
And it should be. Only the most blinkered, agenda-driven fool would not beg De Villiers to return to the international arena because he once retired in a bit of a huff. That’s the way it is with genius – they’re not perfect and they’re not always easy to manage.
Clearly the set-up at the Royal Challengers Bangalore, whom De Villiers represents in the IPL, has figured out how to extract the best from him. There is no reason that the Proteas can’t find the same solution and find a way to incorporate De Villiers in the team for the T20I World Cup in India later this year. He doesn’t have to prove anything, and he doesn’t have to play other internationals as some sort of display of “loyalty”.
AB de Villiers is South African; he is eligible for the Proteas and he’s a once-in-a-lifetime talent playing some of his best cricket in the format to be played at the next World Cup.
It doesn’t take a genius to know that with AB de Villiers in the team, South Africa may win the title. But without him, they have no chance. Genius gives you hope.