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Cricket news - When ABdV lit up the Irish league

AB de Villiers smashed a jaw-dropping 233, which was over 75% of the team total of 308 - against derby rivals Cliftonville - and the highest score in the history of Northern Irish cricket

AB de Villiers smashed a jaw-dropping 233, which was over 75% of the team total of 308 - against derby rivals Cliftonville - and the highest score in the history of Northern Irish cricket

When Bobby Robson replaced the legendary Johan Cruyff as coach of FC Barcelona in 1996 - taking on one of the most intensely pressurised jobs in football - he was told by the club's president that a team in transition badly needed a striker and was asked whether he knew of one. There was a 19-year-old kid at PSV Eindhoven, replied Robson. Senor Nunez duly took out the Blaugrana chequebook and paid a then world-record fee of 13.2m pounds for Ronaldo Luis Nazario de Lima, while making Robson acutely aware that his job depended on the Brazilian scoring goals. O Fenmeno struck 47 times in 49 games and won FIFA World Player of the Year, which still wasn't enough to prevent Robson being given a 'lateral promotion' to Director of Football as Louis van Gaal replaced him as coach.

A similar, if slightly scaled-down predicament faced the Carrickfergus CC committee in the winter of 2003-04 after the club, founded in 1868 but in a permanent home since only 1988, had earned promotion to the top-flight of Northern Irish cricket for the first time in its history. A pro was needed, an overseas player - not permitted in the lower tiers if they had played first-class cricket - to give the team an edge and allow them to be competitive against the established sides of Ulster cricket. Although it is fair to say the club's budget didn't extend to breaking any world records.

Step forward club stalwart Roger Bell, who earlier that summer had been watching Sky Sports when a sprightly young lad in the South African Under-19s team made 143 against his English counterparts at Arundel before being dismissed by Liam Plunkett. Bell floated the player's name to the committee and, after brief deliberation, they made the appropriate calls.

It was a gamble - dipping into the young-pup Southern Hemisphere market can be perilous - and the club's short-term future depended on one Abraham Benjamin de Villiers, who was just seven first-class appearances into his career and averaging an unspectacular 33.7, making a few runs. You probably don't need a spoiler alert at this point before being told that he turned out to be quite useful. A little bit handy. Not the worst. But in the spring of 2004, Carrickfergus were more interested in what he could do for them in the here-and-now, or the there-and-then: namely, not allowing one of the oldest clubs in Ireland to embarrass itself on its maiden top-flight voyage.

De Villiers was due to arrive on the morning of Carrick's third game of the season, May bank holiday Monday, but after a delay in his flight's layover in Germany, and another transit through London, there was still no sign of him as Ryan Eagleson prepared to toss with the Belfast Harlequins skipper. Just then, word reached the team that the flight had finally touched down at Belfast International, and so the new pro's name was hastily inked on to the teamsheet in the hope that he might be able to bat at number five or six.

However, after a peddle-to-the-metal lift from the airport off Bell - and a 54-run opening partnership in 16 overs - AB arrived at the ground, padded up, and strode out at first drop, joining the man in whose house he would lodge for what turned out to be a 12-week stint on the Emerald Isle. Barry Cooper was a New Zealander who first went to Ulster as a replacement overseas player and settled there after landing a job as a quantity surveyor. He had recently bought the house from Roger Bell, "and part of the deal was I had to put up the overseas pro," he says, deadly serious.

"The first time I met him was literally when he walked out to bat," continues Cooper. "It was like, 'OK, hi. How you doing? I'm Barry'. It was a stinker of a wicket, wet, doing a fair bit, and slow going. I said, 'I know you've probably never played on a wicket like this in your life. I know you're going to want to impress. But you're just not going to be able to play the shots that you're used to playing. Let's just see how we go here.' He spooned a few up and was nearly caught at mid off in his first few balls. But he adapted."

De Villiers would end up with a debut 82 from 85 balls, working his way up through those now-familiar gears. "Their overseas pro was Ijaz Ahmed Jr, who played a couple of Test matches for Pakistan," recalls Cooper, who would himself bat through for 87 not out. "He came on with his off-spin and I said to AB: 'This guy is going to be near impossible to get away. It's a tough wicket and he's not going to bowl any bad balls. We'll nurdle him, and if we can get 20 off his 10 we'll worry about the rest later'. AB obviously took that as a bit of a challenge and in his first over skipped down the wicket and stuck him back over his head for six. Twice. That was the first time I remember thinking to myself: this boy's a bit special."

Despite de Villiers ending up spending just shy of three months in Northern Ireland, his Carrick teammates would only see him bat a further nine times, starting the following Saturday with a visit to North Down and a breezy 44 in an emphatic defeat to the champions of the previous three seasons. The following day's Ulster Cup first-round match saw a coach trip to Donemana CC in the town of Strabane, nestled right up against the western border with the Republic of Ireland.

The stalwarts of Carrickfergus, from left to right: Snehal Parikh (CCC's first overseas), AB de Villiers, Nigel McFarland (former leading CCC runscorer), Barry Cooper, Bobby Henderson, Robin Stewart (CCC president)

"This proved a real eye-opener for the young AB," recalls teammate Ally McCalmont. "He slept for almost the entire hour's bus journey, only waking as we drove into the ground. Greeted with a 25-metre boundary one side and a 25-metre hill on the other, he couldn't believe we would be playing on such a ground, and when some of the home side opened the pavilion shutters and stumbled out of the bar, after clearly a heavy Saturday night session, he was visibly taken aback. A few hours later though, AB had been dismissed for 18 and been pumped all-around 'The Holm', going for 74 off his eight overs. It definitely gave him a different perspective."

Partly due to the weather and partly to his ineligibility for both the island-wide Irish Senior Cup (Carrick conceded the highest total in that year's competition, 346/6 vs Leinster) and NCU Challenge Cup, de Villiers would not get back on the park for over a month. This gave him plenty of time to kill in the sleepy fishing port 11 miles up the northern shore of Lough Belfast, which funnels seaborne voyagers down into the capital's docks, where the infamous Titanic was built. Widely known for the eponymous Irish folk song covered by Van Morrison and Bryan Ferry, among others, Carrickfergus wasn't obviously endowed with ways for a young visitor, just turned 20, to keep boredom at bay. "At that age, he wouldn't have been too interested in what I believe is the oldest Norman castle in Ireland," deadpans Cooper.

"The first time I met him was literally when he walked out to bat," continues Cooper. "It was like, 'OK, hi. How you doing? I'm Barry'. It was a stinker of a wicket, wet, doing a fair bit, and slow going. I said, 'I know you've probably never played on a wicket like this in your life. I know you're going to want to impress. But you're just not going to be able to play the shots that you're used to playing. Let's just see how we go here.' He spooned a few up and was nearly caught at mid off in his first few balls. But he adapted."

Instead, he went to the gym and occasionally trod the fairways - Cooper remembers him as a very good golfer, not quite scratch as the infamous meme about his sporting prowess has it, but chuckles at the memory of AB "fluffing his very first tee shot 50 yards down the fairway" (while McCalmont notes that, despite his skills with an oval ball, "like every South African we've ever had, he struggled to kick a football in a straight line from A to B"). He also did some Under-14s coaching in Belfast alongside the Harlequins wicket-keeper, a then 18-year-old Gary Wilson, who has since racked up nearly 200 international appearances for Ireland.

And he spent hours at home strumming his beloved guitar - Cooper still has a tape of AB's favourite band, South African acoustic rockers Just Jinjer - as he endeavoured to adapt to life away from Pretoria. "I was quite nervous and scared of being so far away from home," recalls De Villiers. "This was the first time I was planning to stay overseas for longer than a month. It was pretty tough to get used to being on my own, many miles away from home."

It proved something of a crash course in domesticity and self-reliance. "I think I frustrated Barry at times," he says, "but I learnt over time and think I eventually pulled my weight in the house. He was the perfect roommate and I learnt some really good life lessons staying with him."

Cooper has only good things to say about his South African lodger, even though "he didn't know the difference between a washing machine and an oven when he got here. He wasn't a womaniser - he flew his girlfriend in at one point - and he wasn't a raker, so there wasn't too much drinking or many big nights out."

Not that AB was a choirboy, exactly. He has admitted to being "a bit of a washout" who would "eat pepper steak pies at 3 am after a big night out" while at university (where, unlike close friend Faf du Plessis, he was not in the first XI). He had debuted for Titans since then, the penny of professionalism having dropped, although he fully understood the necessity of involving himself in the team's bonding rituals, says McCalmont: "He would always join the lads on nights out in Belfast after a game, win or lose. One such night we had too many travelling back in the car, so our overseas professional was consigned to a 20-minute journey stuffed in the boot."

"He was a professional cricketer," adds Cooper. "And very polite and well-read and well-behaved. He looked after himself. But there was one night when he forgot his key to the house and ended up climbing up the drainpipe and through the window instead of rapping the front door, all because he didn't want to wake me up. He was bleeding all over my curtains from a cut to the hand, but it wasn't serious and didn't prevent him from playing cricket or anything."

Eventually, AB got back out on the park, taking out his frustrations with a 30-ball 55 against Lisburn. Skipper Eagleson - part of the Northern Ireland team that competed in the Commonwealth Games' sole cricket tournament, in Malaysia in 1998, where they faced South Africa, Barbados and Bangladesh, who they beat - made 78. But Carrick lost, as they did the following Saturday against Lurgan, despite AB crashing 108 from 93 balls, having moved up to open the batting with his housemate who by now was thoroughly impressed, if not by his lodger's cooking skills then certainly by his batting ability.

"The thing is that he was never slogging," says Cooper. "It never looked like he was taking a risk, even when he came down the wicket and hit a six, you know. It wasn't how most people come down the wicket and hit a six. Ally McCalmont, who likes a wager, said: 'I wonder what odds we can get on him playing for South Africa'. Even then, you thought it's probably not going to happen because loads of South Africans come over and dominate then barely play for a franchise, never mind international cricket. Looking back now, you realise that what we were watching was pretty awesome."

Even so, with more bad weather around, it was a further three weeks before AB was back in the pads. And he still hadn't made a home debut, two months after arriving.

The next game was at Waringstown, top dogs of Northern Irish cricket having won 30 top-flight league titles (14 in 20 years across the 1970s and 80s), 26 NCU Challenge Cups (second to North Down), and twice as many Irish Senior Cups as any other club on the island of Ireland. Nevertheless, Carrick recorded their first league win since the day de Villiers stepped off the plane, 68 days earlier. He only made 13 himself - "that was when his girlfriend had flown in to visit," McCalmont wryly observes - while Cooper made a hundred and Eagleson a third straight 60-plus score.

AB de Villiers and his teammates celebrate after he scored an unbeaten 208 not out in the final chapter of his truncated spell as a league cricketer - against Instonians CC in South Belfast

In an effort to make up some of the washed-out fixtures, the Northern Cricket Union mandated double-header weekends, and so AB's long-awaited home debut came the day after the Waringstown win, against Bangor, the eventual champions. Again Carrick chose to chase upon winning the toss, yet Bangor amassed a mammoth 366 from their 50 overs, with Johnny Hewitt exploiting the short straight boundaries to score a daddy-hundred 182. When de Villiers fell for 89 from 92 balls, a stiff chase became an impossible one and they crashed to a 165-run defeat. Despite 391 runs in six innings from their pro, Carrick were in a relegation dogfight. Then things got worse.

"We were sitting in his living room at Barry's when the phone rang," recalls McCalmont. "It was passed to AB and he took the call calmly, not saying much for around 10 or 15 minutes, then politely said 'thank you' and hung up. He had gone pale. Naturally, we asked what it was about. He explained it was the South Africa 'A' selectors and that he'd been picked to represent them for the first time, in Zimbabwe. He said, 'What am I going to do?' We didn't understand what the issue was. 'I have a contract with Carrickfergus,' he said. Both me and Barry started laughing, but he was deadly serious. The fact that he even for a second thought that he could turn down South Africa 'A' out of loyalty to this small club he'd only just joined spoke volumes. It goes without saying that his mind was set straight almost immediately when we talked it through."

Three matches remained for AB to make his mark; three matches to leave behind something special for the club he was reluctantly departing, albeit for the next big step on his fast-tracked trajectory; three matches for a budding genius who would later crack a 31-ball ODI hundred and sweep nonchalant sixes off the pre-eminent pace bowler of the age (a mate who made his first-class and Test debuts in the same games, for the same team) to do something befitting his outlandish talents. Over those final three matches for Carrickfergus, when his thoughts could have been forgiven for drifting toward the bright lights of international cricket approaching fast from the horizon, Abraham Benjamin de Villiers would average 503.

And he started with a measly 62, albeit collected from a sprightly 57 balls in defeat to Downpatrick: Carrick's fifth loss in six. The following day, at home to derby rivals Cliftonville, he exploded. Facing exactly half of Carrick's 300-ball allotment - 24 of which he stroked to the boundary, 11 he smote over it - de Villiers made an unbeaten 233, over 75% of the team total of 308 and the highest score in the history of Northern Irish cricket. Already a fairly strong front-runner for Man of the Match, he then had a go at keeping wickets before turning in a season's best spell of 10-1-28-3 in a much-needed victory. "I was trusted with the new ball as a bowler," he says, "which was quite refreshing and very enjoyable. I think it took some of the pressure off of my batting." Indeed.

The final chapter of de Villiers's truncated spell as a league cricketer was a trip to Instonians CC in south Belfast. "When the covers came off," recalls McCalmont, "there was more green on the wicket than a table at the Crucible and we politely asked the opposition skipper if their f***ing lawn-mower was broke. His reply was that they wouldn't be going for 233. And he was right."

In the opposing ranks was Andrew White, who later played alongside Eoin Morgan, Boyd Rankin and the O'Brien brothers in Ireland's famous 2007 World Cup victory over Pakistan in Jamaica. "There had been a bit of rain around," he says, "and so we put them in because it was damp. There was even moisture on the outfield. I vividly remember him hitting a front-foot square drive and the ball skimming across the surface with a bit of moisture spray behind it as it travelled to the fence at a fairly serious rate of knots."

Truth was, recalls Cooper, AB had been slow to get going: "I remember getting to 20 while he was scratching around, barely off the mark. Then he just took off. I got out in the 40s and I remember thinking, 'I'm almost glad I got out then' because he was in the 90s and was about to get his hundred before I got my fifty, and that was with a 20-run head start! I said to the captain, 'You know what's going to happen here, don't you?' We both knew he was going to get a second double hundred."

Put down in his 60s - "a tough chance, with the keeper stood up," says White - he duly powered on to three figures, then 150, then the double hundred. No-one had previously achieved it in top-flight Northern Irish cricket; AB de Villiers had done it twice in eight days. "It just got to the stage where he was really, really difficult to bowl to," White continues. "No one else really got any runs [Cooper's 47 off 93 was the only other double-figure score], but he was so good, he had all the shots, and he found it quite easy to manipulate the strike. No matter what we tried to do in terms of field settings, he always had an answer. And it was never brutal. It was always done with the minimum of fuss, the minimum of effort. He just made it look really, really easy."

On a pitch the colour of the Emerald Isle itself, AB made 208 not out from 161 balls, with 16 fours and 7 sixes, bringing his final tally to 912 runs at 114 in all cricket, with 894 runs from nine league outings at an eye-watering 127.71. The consensus was that Roger Bell had sniffed out a good 'un. "It took me some time but by that stage I really just felt settled in," says de Villiers. "I felt like I was part of the club and that I had my own special place in Carrick. Once you get that feeling in any set-up, you can then just focus on being yourself and performing to your full potential. It was the perfect way to sign off."

Having said his farewells, de Villiers made 91 and 84 in the first SA 'A' outing in Zimbabwe, sweeping him ever on toward his (and Dale Steyn's) Test debut on December 17 that year, against England in Port Elizabeth. Meanwhile, Carrickfergus staved off the drop, winning seven of their eighteen games, including a final-day relegation decider with Harlequins, who fell through the trapdoor. By the time Carrick's next campaign rolled around, de Villiers had 11 Test caps to his name and almost a thousand runs at 53.7, with three hundreds, including 178 and 114 in his two most recent games. He was no longer on the club-pro market. Roger Bell renewed his Sky subscription.

In an ode to his stellar three-month stint, there's a framed shirt of AB de Villiers at Carrickfergus CC

Andrew White bumped into de Villiers when Ireland met South Africa at the 2007 World Cup - "a nice moment for those of us who played against him locally in the league to see up close how far he had progressed" (he was out in the first over for a duck, sadly/happily) - while Carrick hung on in the Premier League until 2012. They bounced back from relegation at the second attempt, winning an all-Ireland title in 2014 and being named the island-wide 'Irish Cricket Club of the Year' despite being in the second tier of the Northern Irish structure. They have grown up, put down solid foundations and, where possible, remained in touch with the South African virtuoso who lit up the club for those three short months. Indeed, a couple of his teammates caught up with AB last summer when he dropped in at the UK Open golf championship at Portrush, just beyond the Giant's Causeway along Ulster's Atlantic coast.

"We were sitting in his living room at Barry's when the phone rang," recalls McCalmont. "It was passed to AB and he took the call calmly, not saying much for around 10 or 15 minutes, then politely said 'thank you' and hung up. He had gone pale. Naturally, we asked what it was about. He explained it was the South Africa 'A' selectors and that he'd been picked to represent them for the first time, in Zimbabwe. He said, 'What am I going to do?' We didn't understand what the issue was. 'I have a contract with Carrickfergus,' he said. Both me and Barry started laughing, but he was deadly serious. The fact that he even for a second thought that he could turn down South Africa 'A' out of loyalty to this small club he'd only just joined spoke volumes. It goes without saying that his mind was set straight almost immediately when we talked it through."

De Villiers is now in the autumn of a truly great career, an utterly box-office trailblazer and bona fide superstar yet palpably down to earth. And he hasn't forgotten the part a wee club in Northern Ireland played in his star-spangled journey. "I learnt about taking ownership and responsibility for my own success and happiness there," he reflects. "I learnt to stand up for myself and realised no one was going to do everything for me. There's a time in one's life where you need to start thinking for yourself and I certainly learnt that there. I will forever be grateful to Carrickfergus club, for the friendships and special memories. I truly miss the place and hope to return sometime soon. Life happens quickly, my kids are growing up too, but I'm sure I'll soon get the chance to return."

When he does, there will be a spare bed at Barry Cooper's house. And, of course, some spare keys under the wheelie bin.

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