By: Chinmay Vaidya
On May 23, AB de Villiers retired from all formats of international cricket. Not just Tests, not just ODIs, not just T20Is. He will still be participating in domestic leagues across the world but international cricket will no longer see the man who is currently the second-best batsman in the world and for de Villiers, being second best effectively sums up his entire cricket career.
My first memory of AB was in the 2007 World Cup. It was a group stage match between South Africa and Australia. One year earlier, South Africa had chased down a seemingly impossible total of 438 against this very Australian team. Herschelle Gibbs was the star of that match, although de Villiers did contribute 14 runs in the win. If there was a team to end Australia’s run of dominance, it was South Africa.
The Aussies put up 377. It was a daunting total, but not one that would faze South Africa. AB de Villiers and Graeme Smith put up a 160-run opening stand, spearheaded by AB’s 92 from 70. He was just 23 at the time, but that innings was his early signature moment. It was an announcement to the world that AB had arrived. Unfortunately, it was a run out that did him in. South Africa faltered down the stretch and lost the match. The Proteas bowed out to the Aussies in the semifinal. de Villiers managed just 15 runs in that contest.
When looking at where de Villiers stands in cricket history, there are two things to consider: raw numbers and historical context. His numbers are excellent, but are second best to another South African in every format. Here’s how AB stacks up to his fellow countrymen in all formats.
The methodology here is pretty simple. I’m looking at the top run scorers for South Africa in each format with runs scored, average, hundreds, fifties and strike rate. I’ve filtered the average to eliminate not-out innings, giving a more accurate picture of the impact the batsman had in each game.
Jacques Kallis -165 matches, 13,206 runs, 47.5 adjusted average, 45 100s, 58 50s
Graeme Smith- 116 matches, 9,253 runs, 45.58 adj. average, 27 100s, 38 50s
Hashim Amla- 117 matches, 8,982 runs, 44.68 adj. average, 28 100s, 39 50s
AB de Villiers - 114 matches, 8,765 runs, 45.89 adj. average, 22 100s, 46 50s
Gary Kirsten- 101 matches, 7,289 runs, 41.41 adj. average, 21 100s, 34 50s
Herschelle Gibbs- 90 matches, 6,167 runs, 40.04 adj. average,14 100s, 26 50s
It’s all Jacques Kallis in the Test format. He’s got the runs, average, centuries and half-centuries. AB has the second-best average, but not by much. He’s well behind Kallis in this format. Even Hashim Amla, who is still active, will pass de Villiers when he hangs it up.
Jacques Kallis - 323 matches, 11,550 runs, 37.37 adj. average, 17 100s, 86 50s, 73.13 S/R
AB de Villiers - 223 matches, 9,427 runs, 44.25 adj. average, 25 100s, 52 50s, 101.27 S/R
Herschelle Gibbs - 248 matches, 8,094 runs, 33.73 adj. average, 21 100s, 37 50s, 83.26 S/R
Hashim Amla - 164 matches, 7,535 runs, 46.8 adj. average, 26 100s, 35 50s, 88.9 S/R
Graeme Smith - 196 matches, 6,989 runs, 36.21 adj. average, 10 100s, 47 50s, 80.86 S/R
Gary Kirsten- 185 matches, 6,798 runs, 36.74 adj. average, 13 100s, 45 50s, 72.04 S/R
If de Villiers has a case in any format, it’s this one. He’s way behind on runs but when you look at his average and strike rate, it’s not hard to imagine him overtaking Kallis had he continued playing. Unfortunately, we will never know where de Villiers could have ended up in this format. Amla is going to have a say in this format, but he’s about 2,000 runs away from surpassing AB. That might just be enough distance.
JP Duminy - 76 matches, 1,822 runs, 26.02 adj. average, 0 100s, 11 50s, 124.79 S/R
AB de Villiers - 78 matches, 1, 672 runs, 22.3 adj. average, 0 100s, 10 50s, 135.16 S/R
Hashim Amla - 40 matches, 1,158 runs, 28.95 adj. average, 0, 100s, 7 50s, 131.74 S/R
Faf du Plessis - 36 matches, 1, 129 runs, 31.36 adj. average, 1 100s, 7 50s, 132.97 S/R
David Miller - 57 matches, 1, 029 runs, 20.6 adj. average, 1 100s, 1 50s, 141.15 S/R
Graeme Smith - 33 matches, 982 runs, 29.75 adj. average, 0 100s, 5 50s, 127.53 S/R
Kallis and Graeme Smith caught the beginning of the T20 craze, but didn’t play nearly enough games to capitalize on it. Surprisingly, it’s JP Duminy holding the top spot in this format. AB is clearly the better player but even here, he’s sitting in second place. Amla will probably surpass him in this format as well. du Plessis is another player to watch on this list.
Considering the historical context doesn’t really do much for de Villiers’ case as an all-time great player, but it’s important to understand. He was an ODI and T20 captain for South Africa, but his record doesn’t stack up to Smith’s or Hansie Cronje, even though the latter is basically out of the comparison due to his role in match fixing. In the T20 format he’s behind Smith and du Plessis, who has won more games than AB has captained.
His second-place finishes also defined his illustrious IPL career. AB is 10th in IPL scoring, although he will certainly move up on that list. He has played in two title games and lost both times. He was never the featured player on his own team, especially with Royal Challengers Bangalore.
He was never definitively the best batsman in the game. In his early years, Tendulkar reigned supreme. When AB eventually reached his peak, he was constantly in a battle with Virat Kohli, his IPL teammate. AB was never clearly at the top.
When I look back at AB de Villiers’ career, it was one defined as being second best. He retired as the second best batsman in the world at the time. He’s the second best batsman in South African history, although his case for the top spot in the ODI format is strong. He’s the second-best captain in South Africa’s ODI history. He’s finished second best, at best, in any tournament.
There is no shame in AB de Villiers being second best. The only shame is he robbed himself of the chance to be the best.