South Africa's AB de Villiers: Cricket's great gamechanger

Ajit Vijaykumar 04:28 02/03/2015
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De Villiers lit up the Cricket World Cup with 150 v West Indies

David Warner hits the ball hard, as does Mahendra Singh Dhoni and the inimitable Chris Gayle. It’s getting increasingly tough to distinguish between all the monstrous hitting we are witnessing in cricket, especially ODIs.

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Gayle’s brute power was there for all to see against Zimbabwe as he cleared his right leg and went whack over after over to notch up the first World Cup double century. Warner has been getting down on one knee and bludgeoning the ball for a long time now, irrespective of the format while Dhoni’s incredible ‘helicopter’ shots make their appearance every now and then.

All three batsmen have raw power and sometimes it becomes a bit of a challenge to pick a particular innings of theirs as special. But there is one player whose knocks manage to stand out in the sea of audacious batting. South Africa’s AB de Villiers is a special cricketer.

He grew up playing multiple sport and could have picked up anything from hockey, tennis, rugby, swimming, badminton, tennis and cricket while growing up. He was selected for South Africa’s junior national teams in hockey, football, tennis and rugby but decided to put everything aside for cricket. Such rare talent was always going to flourish in professional sport.

It didn’t surprise those closest to de Villiers when he soon became an integral member of South Africa’s batting, took over from Jonty Rhodes and Herschelle Gibbs as the best fielder in the side and picked up the wicketkeeping gloves once Mark Boucher’s playing days drew to a close. There isn’t much de Villiers can’t do on a cricket field.

And that is especially true when it comes to batting. Modern cricketers have grown up with T20 cricket, short boundaries and gargantuan bats. They are almost hardwired to swing as hard as they can, knowing very well that even mis-hits go for boundaries. So it takes a great player to find a whole new way of keeping the scoreboard ticking, which is what the Protea has done.

Two innings of his stand out. Both came against the West Indies. The first time he made the world stand up and truly applaud his talent was in January at the start of the year. Those at the Wanderers will never forget the 31-ball century he cracked, with a record 16 sixes that lay the foundation for the fastest ever one-day century. What’s amazing is that he bettered the previous mark by five deliveries.

If people thought his innings was a one-off, he shattered the record books once again. This time, it was an unbeaten knock of 162 from just 66 balls with eight hits over the fence and 17 fours in what was the fastest ever ODI 150. What’s unique about both the knocks is that they were full of unorthodox shots you won’t find in any batting manual, even a T20 one.

De Villiers regularly got down to his knees and scooped, sliced and paddle swept fast bowlers and spinners to parts of the ground they probably never thought of ending up at. When a pacer bowls a full delivery, a flick over fine leg or square leg for six is probably not what he expects.

But against de Villiers, that what Jason Holder got over after over in their World Cup clash as his last five went for a staggering 95 runs. And that’s the beauty of de Villiers’ batting. It’s audacious, innovative and entertaining in itself. He moves around the crease and dispatches the bowlers with a flick of his wrists without throwing the kitchen sink at it. 

It’s a batting style that is unique to AB. Just like two other batsmen who carved a niche for themselves in one-day cricket. Australia’s ODI legend Michael Bevan was the master of nudging the ball around and keeping the scoreboard moving. He was the ultimate finisher who almost always stayed at the crease until the end to see his team through. His batting average of 53.38 in the late 1990s and early 2000s was outlandish as even greats like Sachin Tendulkar remained around the 45-run mark.

Michael Bevan helped change ideas in one-day cricket

Another player who changed the way one-day batting was viewed was Sri Lanka opener Sanath Jayasuriya. The concept of pinch-hitting at the top of the order had been there on paper for many years but he took it by the scruff of the neck. The first 15 overs became a carnage with fast bowlers being hit over the infield with regularity. It was Sanath who made a quick start almost mandatory in ODIs.

Now de Villiers has managed to add a new dimension to limited overs batting. You don’t have to thrash the living daylights out of every single ball. A deft glance here and a cheeky scoop there can have the same result. Sure, fans love to see Gayle’s massive shots, Warner’s punchy drives and Dhoni’s dramatic lofts. But de Villiers is a class apart because absolutely no one bats the way he does. A true gamechanger.

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