Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Greatest South African cricketers: AB de Villiers


If you've watched some IPL, you would have heard it before. A wicket falls, and then another. Then the cacophany of sound starts. You can hear it, "AB" "AB", "AB". Cricket is a game which can be a little boring. Even in it's most condensed form. You could argue that there are only a handful of superstars in cricket. Virat Kohli is one. Not only because of the fact that he is the face of cricket in the biggest market in world cricket, but his attitude, the way he carries himself. He stands a man apart there. AB de Villiers never quite carried himself that way, but he had that superstar quality. He walks in and the crowd is nearly in rapture. He hasn't even batted yet, and people are already excited.


It took five Tests for AB to confirm that there was substance to his promise. It must be noted that when AB made his debut on the 17th of December 2004, South African cricket was in a bit of rut. They were less than 18 months removed from a pretty abject failure in the world cup. More immediately they had just lost the away India series 1-0. The cupboard had looked so bare that Andrew Hall was opening. To be fair, he scored a century in India. But that was more a case of serendipity than any real foresight. The cupboard looked bare, and CSA didn't even have a place to put hope. Which was just as well because they probably didn't have that, given the fact that the likes of Zander de Bruyn and Martin van Jaarsveld were getting capped. Honest cricketers, no doubt. But not the guys you look at when you hope for a future in cricket. Fortunately, AB de Villiers and Dale Steyn debuted on the same day, with Hashim Amla having made his bow a few months earlier, and the world was changed. But this is about AB de Villiers.


AB de Villiers is the most exciting cricketer South Africa has ever produced. Cricket is a strange game, Test cricket anyway, in that the most marketable stars of the game are not the ones who have the most influence over a game. In football, strikers are disproportionately adored and loved, but that is because they have the biggest influence over a result seeing as they are tasked with performing a role tied to winning the game. In the same vein, In rugby, without an effective pack, most flyhalves are actually a little useless, but because they generally kick over penalties and are tasked with unlocking the backline, they are given a slightly elevated sense of importance. In Test cricket, it's been a little backward. Barring a captain making a poor series of declarations, it is bordering on impossible to win a Test game without taking 20 wickets. So bowlers should by that logic be the superstars of cricket right? Nah. Much like in baseball where a pitcher has a much greater influence on proceedings than any batter, for some reason, cricket has decided that batting is sexy. And my word, there is nothing more sexy than AB in full flow. He hits it long. He hits it in the most unorthodox places, and he is consistent. AB de Villiers managed to marry the visceral thrill of watching Jos Buttler with the consistent genius of Virat Kohli. Very few athletes in world sports marry style and substance. Roger Federer is one. AB de Villiers was another. His retirement leaves a hole in the South African middle order, as we lose our best batsman. Our best finisher. Our most senior batsman. To say he left a hole would be like saying Beethoven left a mark on music. There is almost literally no way we can cover the gap the great man left in less than a year, but we can write a blog post detailing how great he is.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

The Wiaan Mulder Quandary




Many years ago, when the skies were blue and the world was good, Michael Jordan was in the NBA draft. The Portland Trailblazers had the number one draft pick. The Blazers at the time already had a pretty good shooting guard in Clyde Draxler. A scout called them pre-draft and told them to pick Michael Jordan, to which the Trailblazers replied, "We already have a shooting guard. We need a centre". The scout gave the immortal retort "Pick Jordan and then play him at centre". The basic premise behind this modern allegory is that if the moving parts involved are good enough, you can figure out how to fit them in later. Sort of reverse engineer sporting success, if you will. See what you have, and make it fit. As compared to the old way, which was; see what you need, and get pieces that fit. I think of this story today as I write about Wiaan Mulder. In his limited time with the Proteas, he's been put in to bat #6 or 7. He bats at four for his domestic side, The Highveld Lions. The idea is of course, that he is such a precocious and wonderful talent with his worldly success so assured, that it doesn't particularly matter where we play him. He will succeed. Certainly, at 19, he is as exciting a talent as South Africa has produced since all the way back to a year or two ago when we unleashed Lungi Ngidi into the world. Or going further back all the way to two years before that when Kagiso Rabada announced himself. To find a predecessor for Rabada you have to go all the way back to two years before he was found, to find one Quinton de Kock. We seem to be producing incredible cricketers at a rate of knots is what I am saying. My opinion is that this never-before seen success and depth of talent has led Cricket South Africa, and specifically the selection panel to get more and more brazen with their selections. If you are young and promising, you will at some point get a selection. That is all well and good, but at some point CSA have to be a little bit more discerning in their choices.

Wiaan Mulder is a supreme talent. No doubt. In the last Sunfoil Series, he averaged over 50 with the bat and less than thirty with the ball. If a wily veteran averaged this, they'd definitely warrant selection. If teenager averages this, well. You put them on a must watch list and then fast-track their progress. But, and this is where the discernment comes in. All the hype for and about Mulder has been on the back of his red ball exploits. His List A numbers are pretty mediocre and barring a reasonably brisk hundred, there is no reason to be particularly enthused about his List A career. Now this doesn't mean that he should not be selected in List A. But it does mean that as of now, he isn't the cricketing equivalent to the aforementioned Michael Jordan, where you pick him and figure out where to play him later. With Mulder, management has to figure out two things. 1) What is his best position with the bat? 2) Is he in their plans for the 2019 world cup? 

The answer to number one is fairly obvious. He bats four for the Lions. He averages over 40 batting at four domestically. But wait, I hear you you all, an average of 40 is good. Why can't he just be picked and then adjusted later? Because, my sweet child, while he does average a very healthy 40 for the Lions. I'm talking about his Firs class average. His List A average is 25. That is not a plug and play. That is the very definition of "do not just insert him into the line-up". So, no, CSA. You cannot bat him at seven or eight. He isn't that guy. He barely strikes it at 100 in T20s domestically. He hasn't even hit a six in domestic T20. The kid is a talent, yes. But he is not a finisher. He’s a number four. A budding one, certainly. Unlikely to meet the heights of AB de Villiers, definitely. But that doesn’t make him a finisher by some process of elimination.

Which leads me to point two. This is a slightly more difficult to answer aspect. In an ideal world, CSA would have picked him at the beginning of 2017, and given him two-and-a-half years to develop as a cricketer under the international lights. Not particularly ideal, really given the lack of cricket he’d have. But at least we’d have a broad pool of information to work with regarding the potential Mulder has. But we didn’t, and we don’t. Which leaves us in a quandary. We threw a high-potential cricketer into a situation where we now have to persevere with him batting at a position he isn’t primed to succeed in. The world cup is less than a year away, and if we don’t pick Mulder, we have to start from scratch finding a #7. This doesn’t even sound like a bad idea given the fact that Dwaine Pretorius was the incumbent to for that role and then he was dropped because reasons. Admittedly Dwaine Pretorius’ average of 18 in ODI isn’t exactly bringing the rockets to the scientists, but he has played a magnificent knock in ODI cricket already, the smashing 50 he scored in New Zealand, while his bowling figures are pretty encouraging for a fourth bowler. An average below 30. An economy rate below 5. That man should have the inside lane in a world cup year. Wiaan should probably go to the world cup. At the very least as the beginning of the 2023 cycle. He shouldn’t start though. We need a blaster at seven, and for all his talents, as assured as his worldly success seems to be, Wiaan Mulder is no blaster.