Before he decided to leave the cricketing world, AB de Villiers left one last image of his spellbinding genius — frozen mid-air, his legs curled inwards like a pirouetting gymnast, the right arm thrust so precisely to snaffle the gallery-bound hit off Alex Hales. What the picture doesn’t capture is his immaculate balance upon landing — so balanced that he doesn’t even sway on the feet. It was a genuine piece of pure athleticism, the crux of de Villiers’s cricketing greatness. There are many more enduring images from his career. De Villiers crouching for the scoop, de Villiers arching for the ramp, de Villiers sliding down to reach his crease.
There have been more complete batsmen and elastic fielders in cricket. But none, apart from de Villiers, can legitimately claim to be an athlete-batsman who could walk into any side on the basis of any of his three gifts — as batsman, fielder and keeper (in that order) — in his prime, before injuries and fatigue invariably set in. But it’s de Villiers the batsman that left a dazzling impression on the game — cricket’s 360 degree radical, one who could rattle out the fastest 50, 100 and 150 in the ODI but one who could also demonstrate copious amounts of abstinence to stonewall, boundary-less, for four hours (Adelaide 2012) or not complete a half-century despite batting for 300-odd minutes (Kotla, 2015), who not only survived but also thrived in all conditions, swing or spin, bounce or seam.
His retirement will leave the game poorer, and his dream of winning the World Cup unrealised, though there were sufficient hints that it was imminent. In the last two years, he had been slow-burning to an inevitable sunset, especially in the five-day format, though in the last two Test series, against India and Australia, he re-emphasised his Test-match pedigree. The sudden announcement triggered debates about his priorities and preferences, and those of his countrymen. But to tweak a famous quote of CLR James, “what do we know of AB who only AB know?” Even those indelible images won’t tell the full story.