De Villiers and the making of a legend

We never thought we’d see another Tendulkar this soon. De Villiers not just shows us what a complete player looks like, he personifies the design of Tendulkar 2.0: nimbler on his feet, niftier with a reverse sweep.

AB de Villiers has a phenomenal approach to his game.   -  PTI

It’s telling that instead of heralding the second coming of our Lord and Saviour Sachin Tendulkar, many commentators and fans talk of the portentously-named Abraham Benjamin de Villiers being a freak of nature. The intent might be to compliment; nevertheless the phrase doesn’t quite carry the ring of ‘God of cricket.’ Matthew Hayden at any rate hasn’t felt moved enough to append his quote on Tendulkar and keep up with the times: “I have seen God once more and these days he bats at No. 5 in Tests for South Africa. (He also fields like the devil.)”

Apparently we aren’t easily impressed. Either that or the game’s followers are struggling to invent superlatives, and still coming to grips with the possibility that AB might be the first complete batsman of the 21st century — a holographic vision of what future cricketers might do on a regular basis.

In an age of brand saturation when greatness has gone into factory production and produced Sangakkaras and Kallises and Younis Khans, a sustained display of form passes for the bare minimum qualification. A batsman must not only score hundreds, he should score big hundreds, and while he’s at it, slice to shreds competent-to-brilliant bowling attacks in seaming, spinning and bouncy conditions. It’s as if we want aspiring modern greats to mimic heroic characters from Game of Thrones.

That’s why AB de Villiers offers such satisfaction. At 31, De Villiers is the real deal, the finished product. The past couple of years he’s discovered a messianic sense of purpose. At No. 4 or 5, he’s perfectly suited to shepherding the relatively weak South African lower order. He’s hit 278 against Pakistan in a Test in Abu Dhabi, clattered runs against the best sides, notched up a series of record-shatteringly quick hundreds in limited overs cricket, and hit six international centuries this year itself, with the marvellous prospect of a few more to follow.

More than all the runs, it’s the manner in which he’s scored them that has demoralised and scattered opponents. He’s got all the shots and a few to spare, a brain that knows when to attack and defend. Not even an impossible target fazes him, which allows him to plan 20 overs ahead. A brilliant all-round athlete since his school days, he possesses the mental endurance to outlast opponents, the muscle memory to physically do things others can’t, and, crucially, the creativity to adapt lessons from cross-training.

He once batted 228 balls in a Test against Australia for 43 runs. Conversely, towards the end of an ODI or T20 innings he will move around in his crease, his head dead-still and his hands low like a hockey player’s, scooping even fuller deliveries behind him for six. In case you think he’s had the luxury of not having to face the world’s best bowlers he dismantled Dale Steyn twice in crunch situations in the IPL. At his best, AB is a momentum blaster. A match isn’t over until AB is done for — and more often than not, bowlers disintegrate first.

AB dominates attacks and looks even more certain on Indian pitches than Virat Kohli or Rohit Sharma. Virat might become the next AB but opponents have noticed a weakness outside the offstump and Virat, flush with the arrogance of impending greatness, is rash enough to want to attack there. AB is more cunning. Like Rohit, AB is capable of motoring at a strike rate over 100 for inhumanly long periods. Just happens the latter is infinitely more reliable. It’s no coincidence that while Rohit has two double hundreds, AB holds the record for the fastest fifty, hundred and 150 in ODIs. He alone infuses you with the belief that he can run every marathon at a canter.

Some experts think AB picks the ball up a fraction quicker off the pitch than his peers. With the kind of experience he has and the form he is in, he might also be anticipating the ball better than anybody in history. Sanjay Manjrekar wonders if AB sees the ball in slow motion. More like AB sees it like a tennis ball in slow motion in a video game with the cheat codes on. And then racks up a score like it’s Stick Cricket.

AB has a phenomenal approach to his game, a profound understanding of his limitations, except arguably when it comes to running between wickets, where he doesn’t seem to realise his partner might be less gifted. Otherwise there is an almost cyborg-level of efficiency. The man has ball-bearings in his heels, springs in his joints. He is living the next level in batting evolution.

We never thought we’d see another Tendulkar this soon. De Villiers not just shows us what a complete player looks like, he personifies the design of Tendulkar 2.0: nimbler on his feet, niftier with a reverse sweep.

The one thing De Villiers couldn’t do as captain was take his team past the World Cup semifinals in Australia and New Zealand. When he publicly berated his teammates after the Pakistan game, you could feel the intensity of his frustration. Time might run out for him in four years when he is 35 – but who knows, men like Kagiso Rabada might begin to translate some of the early promise and help fulfil the long-held dream of an elder statesman.

AB’s ODI average stands at an absurd 54.21, nearly a run higher than before the India series began. His Test average is a shade over 52. No less a personage than the God of cricket himself believes that De Villiers is at the peak of his game. As Tendulkar remarked recently, “He is really, really batting unbelievably well and it seems that he has got more time than anyone else.”

What can India do to counter De Villiers in the Test series? In the past Shahid Afridi has had his measure, to some extent. The Pakistani did him in several times by employing variations in pace and bounce.

A tall Indian off-spinner like R. Ashwin might achieve similar results. The Indians would do well to employ the quicker ball short of length, which AB has minor trouble negotiating; he likes cutting and has ended up in the past chopping the ball back onto the stumps or getting caught behind. Or let him try and steal an extra run — AB’s invariably reluctant partner might do the dirty work for India. But frankly speaking, bowlers haven’t evolved to the point they can consistently stop him.

Fans fear that a De Villiers-inspired South Africa might go on to hand India a decisive series loss in Tests too; that India’s dominance at home counts for nothing against the disciplined Proteas. Sometimes though, it’s just best to gaze at the approaching storm, sip on a cup of tea, and reflect on genius.

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