The ball cracks off AB de Villiers’ bat. There is no real hint of violence; just a marriage of beauty and brutality. De Villiers’ every shot, wondrously crisp and yet flying off his bat with alacrity, feels like a riposte to any who still deride T20 as slogging. The 40,000 at the ground intoxicated by his show are too mesmerised to think of such subtleties.
Welcome to watching AB at the M Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bangalore, an experience that, both on and off the field, feels like the apogee of T20 cricket.
Six follows six, each thundered more emphatically than the last. There are slog sweeps against spin, balls flicked 100 metres over long on like a topspin forehand and drives propelled flat over extra
cover. De Villiers seems to have a preternatural sense of where the ball will be delivered and how he will hit it. After each six, the screen flashes up with a reverential sign: ‘AB Dynamite’ or ‘A dmirable B
rilliant D azzling’.
The NBA basketball league today is in thrall to its unicorns. Previously the sport had rigid ideas about each position’s role. In recent years, these notions have been uprooted by a new breed of
players unshackled by the old compromises between tall players and smaller, agile ones. Instead, new-age players like Kevin Durant can do it all, combining the technique of point guards – who run
games like deep-lying football midfielders – with the athleticism of power forwards, and so redefine the parameters of their sport.
Batting’s unicorn is AB de Villiers, capable of playing with dazzling impunity or the self-restraint of an ascetic monk. He has scored the fastest one-day international century of all time, in 31 balls. He has also played with staggering self-denial. In a Test match in Delhi in 2015 he batted for 354 minutes to score 45 off 297 balls – and in Adelaide in 2012, he made 33 from 220 balls to help salvage a draw, the prelude to thumping 169 in the decisive Test a week later.
Perhaps no one has done more to show the full range of possibilities in T20 batting. ‘A genius’ is how Brendon McCullum described him. In the five IPL seasons from 2015 de Villiers averaged 49.74 – the numbers of a great Test batsman, while scoring those runs at a strike rate of 164. No player to average
within ten of him had a strike rate of 150.
‘You watch Lionel Messi play football and if you love the game you can just see something else in that bloke that other footballers just don’t have basically and I think de Villiers is exactly that,’ said
England’s Sam Billings, who played against de Villiers in the IPL.
‘That is why he is one of the best players ever to play the game because of that ability to be that versatile.
‘It is a tough one to describe. Yeah, fine, someone can score 30 off 20 balls but de Villiers’ 30 off 20 balls compared to Player A is just . . . I would pay to watch that.’
The idea of compromise, and trade-offs, is wired into T20 batting. Most batsmen can be thought of as existing somewhere on a continuum, between aiming to hit as many sixes as possible and aiming to score off every ball. Chris Gayle and Virat Kohli – the first an extraordinary six-hitter who allows 50% of his balls to be dots; the second a near-perfect technician who faces just 35% dot balls – embody the two contrasting approaches.
Similar trade-offs are detectable in other areas, too. Reliable eviscerators of pace bowling, like Chris Lynn and Brendon McCullum, comparatively weak against spin. The leading destroyers of spin,
like Glenn Maxwell and Shane Watson, can be shackled by pace.
Some of the most destructive batsmen in the Powerplay, like Aaron Finch and Alex Hales, can get bogged down afterwards. Those with the most extraordinary strike rates, like Carlos Brathwaite
and Kieron Pollard, often sacrifice consistency. Those who are supremely consistent, like Kohli and Shaun Marsh, typically have lower strike rates – particularly at the start of their innings.
The wonder of AB de Villiers is that he rejected these tradeoffs as false. ‘He walks to the wicket and tries to impose himself on the game from ball one,’ remarked McCullum. Most players typically would take five or ten balls to get used to the nature of the pitch before focusing on run scoring – Gayle started his innings famously slowly – but de Villiers was different.
De Villiers had a preternatural ability to arrive at the batting crease and immediately appear at one with conditions – perfectly attuned to the pace and bounce of the pitch, the dimensions of the ground and the glare of the lights. The apparent comfort of de Villiers at the crease was translated into his performance.
Despite de Villiers often starting his innings in the early middle overs when he was afforded more time to play himself in and run rates were typically lower, he scored significantly faster from the
outset than almost every player in the world. In the first ten balls of his innings he scored at a strike rate of 126.72, compared to 107.51 for all players, even while getting out much less frequently.
Quick starts were crucial because they were an efficient use of resources. On the rare occasions when de Villiers was dismissed early he had often still maintained a healthy scoring rate that had
made a positive contribution, rather than consuming deliveries with a view to accelerating later in his innings.
Just after the fall of a wicket the pressure was on the batting team but by starting quickly de Villiers was able to flip this around, counter-attacking to put the bowling team under pressure once
more. In a Bangladesh Premier League match in January 2019 de Villiers arrived at the crease with his team, the Rangpur Riders, 5 for 2 after 1.5 overs chasing 187 to win.
De Villiers started his innings in thunderous fashion: six, dot, four, four, dot, six, four, four – 28 off his first eight balls and in a flash the match had been turned on its head. Rangpur ended the Powerplay 63 for 2 with the required run rate back in check and won the match by eight wickets and with ten balls to spare. De Villiers finished 100 not out off 50 balls.
De Villiers’ ability to start with alacrity was underpinned by having no obvious weakness against any bowler type. While most players had a clear preference for pace or spin – the skills required for playing one often compromised those required for playing the other – de Villiers was equally strong against both. He scored at a strike rate of 135 against spin and 155 against pace but was
dismissed by spin far less often.
One of the first major influences of data analysis on T20 was the rise of ‘match-ups’ which saw fielding captains target batsmen with specific bowler types based on potential vulnerabilities displayed in the records of the batsman against that bowler type. The issue for fielding captains against de Villiers was that he had no obvious match-up to exploit.
All of the six types of bowling produced negative match-ups for the fielding team with de Villiers averaging at least 30, while scoring at a strike rate of over 130 against all of them. He even excelled against what were ordinarily the most effective deliveries: no player scored faster than de Villiers’ strike rate of 139 against yorkers, and only three players scored faster than his 189 against slower balls.
Such multifarious strengths allowed de Villiers to be very selective in which bowlers he targeted and when. ‘He has the ability to know which bowler he is going to target and when he targets them he
takes them massive,’ observed McCullum, who played with de Villiers at RCB in the 2018 IPL. ‘If he decides to target you then you are in major trouble.’
From Barbados to Bangalore and from Dhaka to Durban, T20 leagues around the world were played in a vast array of differing conditions but de Villiers appeared at home wherever he played. In all five countries where he played at least ten matches – India, South Africa, England, Bangladesh and the Caribbean he averaged at least 30 and scored at a strike rate of at least 130. Different conditions
could not quell him.
Excerpted with permission from Cricket 2.0: Inside the T20 Revolution by Tim Wigmore and Freddie Wilde. Published by Penguin.