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AB distracts attention from AB

The problem with playing an innings as brilliant as AB de Villiers’s unbeaten 95 against Pakistan in the final ODI in Benoni on Sunday was that it distracted attention from something far more important in the bigger picture for the Proteas ODI team.

The brilliance of De Villiers the batsman has been displayed often enough for there to be no doubts about his extraordinary and rare brilliance. His captaincy has, obviously, been less rarely displayed. On Sunday, in Benoni, he nailed it. It was, if possible, an even more powerful display of brilliance than his batting.

When Pakistan were battling to gain control of the game, he brought Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel back into the attack together and offered them both slips and a gully. When Robin Peterson was struggling after an opening gambit of 3-0-25-0 he removed him from the attack and reintroduced him at exactly the right time. Peterson’s response was to remove top-scorer Kamran Akmal in a wicket maiden.

Most captains would have leapt at the chance to get through another couple of cheap overs from his sole spinner but De Villiers’s ‘gut instinct’ took over and he chose that moment to use his only part-timer, Farhaan Behardien. The result was not just the concession of a mere two runs, but the bonus wicket of Younis Khan. Luck, as the old cricket saying goes, is how you make it – and what you make of it.

For 20 years the South African one-day squad has been accused of being too ‘formulaic’, too predictable. In De Villiers we have a free-spirit, an instinctive thinker. It would be wrong to criticise those assets. There have been times when he has ‘followed’ the game rather than led it, but the series decider against Pakistan was his watershed moment. His field placings made a mockery of the batting Power Play which was yet to be utilised. De Villiers already had a Power Play field in place!

Instinct and ‘gut feel’ as De Villiers refers to it doesn’t always work. When he chose to use Colin Ingram’s (very) occasional leg spin at Kingsmead there were no dissenting voices in the commentary boxes. Afterwards, when the single over had cost 17 runs, there were a few. How easily the game is played by those of us behind a microphone.

Hansie Cronje had the best win-loss ratio of any South African captain in ODI cricket, and he was the most formulaic captain of all. Perhaps there is something to be said for pre-planning? There was. But times have changed.

It’s difficult to tell who is more sensitive to criticism, De Villiers or the coaching and management structure of the Proteas. De Villiers seems more than adequately equipped to handle adverse comment. He laughed with me when I made mention of a few errors in my previous column.

The important point is that De Villiers has established himself as the best man for the job. By a mile. Formulas don’t work in international cricket any more. Free, on-the-spot thinking is what is required. As long as it takes place quickly. There’s no point in De Villiers being a brilliant captain if he’s banned.

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