A tennis dream finds fruition in cricket

It takes a lot to bat like de Villiers — athletic ability, skill, cricketing intelligence and great enterprise. He has all four qualities plus the ability to keep a calm head in difficult situations, writes Shreedutta Chidananda.

Dirk Nannes tells a story from his RCB days, about a certain fitness drill players were put through. It was called a lying-start sprint, where people lay flat on their stomachs and at the whistle did a 100m sprint. The first time, Nannes looked around the squad and thought wicket-keepers would not figure anywhere near the front. As it turned out, AB de Villiers crossed the finish line when the rest of his team-mates were just halfway there. Every single time.

There can be little doubt that de Villiers is an athlete with enormous physical gifts — speed, agility, flexibility, and reflexes. He played a number of sports in his youth and, by all accounts, excelled at all of them.

“I loved my tennis, and the whole thing about one day being the world’s best really started on the tennis court,” he tells Michael Jenkins, the author of Making Champions: How South Africa’s sporting heroes are made. “I’d watch all the major tournaments and dream of winning Wimbledon and being the world number one. I was doing really well as a junior, so I had this goal forming in my mind to be the best in the world, and as a child I always felt like I could do it. Then I started playing rugby and cricket with my mates at school, and to be honest, I just enjoyed those sports so much more. I loved being with my mates and competing as a team. My focus shifted quite gradually and naturally from tennis to cricket and rugby. I had believed that I could be as good as any other tennis player, and that confidence just sort of carried over to all the other sports.”

Thinking back to that one-handed sweep shot he played off Andre Russell at the Sydney Cricket Ground in the World Cup recently, from way outside off-stump and way out of his crease, it is easy to see where that outrageous hand-eye co-ordination comes from. Still, such ability alone does not guarantee success as a batsman in cricket. Skill and technique are equally necessary. It is evident that de Villiers has worked hard on the technical side of his game. Early on in his career, he struggled against the moving ball. Mohammad Asif and Zaheer Khan tied him in knots in late 2006 and early 2007. He has improved and has grown to become arguably the best cricketer in the world, across formats.

In the Group B World Cup fixture against West Indies, de Villiers hammered the fastest 150 in ODI cricket, a 64-ball-effort that saw him go from 100 to 150 in an eye-watering 12 deliveries. He hit some obscene shots along the way — sweep shots off fast bowlers, scoops over the fine leg boundary, and whipping yorkers off his toes for six.

“You get into that kind of mode, it doesn’t happen very often, and it’s quite a good feeling to sort of feel that you’re one step ahead of the bowlers,” he said later. “I think that’s the main thing. You get a really good gut feel for what they’re trying to do. You work really hard to get yourself in, then you work really hard to get some momentum behind you, and then you’ve earned the right to sort of take a bit of control of the game.”

Five weeks before, he had smashed the fastest century, off 31 balls, in one-dayers, a knock that included a 16-ball-50. De Villiers now holds the record for the quickest 50, 100 and 150 in the format, and it won’t be long before he scores a double century.

What is striking, though, is that the same player is capable of Test hundreds in Perth and Headingley. De Villiers is a phenomenon, with a Test average of 52.09 and a one-day average of 52.93. He has over 7500 runs in both formats and is a sensational T20 player. Perhaps no player other than Viv Richards has put similar fear in the minds of bowlers, whatever the occasion, whatever the stage of the innings, and whatever the conditions.

“Without a doubt, the best batsman in the world,” his good friend Dale Steyn said last year. “There’s only two games a year I dread — it’s the two IPL games I play against this guy.”

M. S. Dhoni was asked, after India’s destruction of UAE, what he would do if his side was on the receiving end of such a knock. “Well, frankly speaking you can’t do much because if the individual is hitting sixes, you can’t have fields for it,” he said. “There’s not much you can do. You look to bluff the batsman a bit, and that gives liberty to the bowlers to try a few other things if a batsman like Chris Gayle or AB de Villiers gets going. Apart from that, you don’t have a fixed plan. That’s where I feel the bowlers will have to take that extra initiative and they have to be backed well by the fielders because if you have a 50/50 opportunity and if you grab that, it will really ease up the pressure.” That’s what India did, when Mohit Sharma’s accurate throw from the deep ran de Villiers out at the MCG and killed off South Africa’s run chase.

It takes a lot to bat like de Villiers — athletic ability, skill, cricketing intelligence and great enterprise. He has all four qualities plus the ability to keep a calm head in difficult situations. He averages 56.70 batting second in ODIs — five points more than his first innings figure — and averages more in Australia, New Zealand and India than he does in South Africa. He can keep wicket and he leads the team.

Last October, in a one-dayer against New Zealand in Mount Maunganui, de Villiers decided he would bowl and took two for 28 from six overs.

Nobody should be surprised any more.