What makes de Villiers so popular in India?

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  • AB de Villiers gets support even when he plays against India [Sportzpics]

    The date was October 25, 2015 and the fifth ODI at Mumbai, South Africa piling on a massive total of 438 runs, famously the same total they achieved in a successful chase against Australia nine years earlier.

    As the visiting captain of a rival nation, it was slightly unusual to see – or rather hear – AB de Villiers, the third of three South African centurions, announced to the tune of a deafening chorus of ‘A-B-D’.

    Cheered with almost masochistic fervour by the locals, de Villiers clobbered eleven sixes before being named Man of the Series.

    Fast forward to November 14, 2015. The Freedom Trophy’s second Test at Bengaluru was de Villiers’ hundredth.

    Again, the locals have only one tri-syllabic chant on their lips. De Villiers accumulates 85 off 105 balls, hitting one of two South African sixes. The remaining four days were washed out, but over 20,000 came to watch the touring side’s top talent.

    Ten months on and it’s September 5, 2016. De Villiers had just released his autobiography.

    On Twitter, Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma had some extremely flattering remarks to make about their Indian Premier League [IPL] team-mate and opponent, respectively. De Villiers gave a couple of replies – mostly in lowercase – thanking them. One could almost imagine him tapping out a note of thanks with an adorable, almost gawky smile on his face.

    The stock line on Indian crowds is that they are passionate. They are not averse to acknowledging talent either, even when it lofts their bowlers into the stands for six. Just ask Saeed Anwar – he was given a standing ovation after a world record ODI score at Chennai in 1997.

    Talent is not enough per se. At least not to earn the reverence that de Villiers enjoys. There are favourite pantomime villains like John Lever and Ricky Ponting. The latter could tear any bowling attack to shreds on his day, but his wicket tapped a rich vein of Indian schadenfreude rather than simple joy.

    De Villiers is a modern heavyweight, a number one ranked batsman at his peak. He is also happily married, a father and a modest, smiling Mr. Clean. He first played in India in 2008 and has scored 630 Test runs in 15 innings there since then.

    Among them was an undefeated 217 at Ahmedabad – the first South African to score a double hundred in India. That his fan following in India has grown steadily since that point is no coincidence.

    De Villiers has a winning smile. His early talent at multiple sports is well known. Not only is his cricket exciting, it is inventive. He’s no otherworldly physical specimen. He fulfils the Indian middle-class young adult’s dreams – his parents are academics, but he was so good at many sports as to be spoilt for choice. And he remains down-to-earth despite the riches of his talent.

    You could reasonably expect him to emerge from a phone box, street clothes in a heap, with a large ‘S’ splashed on his chest. Then give a child an ice-cream and a warm grin while clubbing the ball over midwicket with his free hand.

    For his part, the South African has always been in awe of the Indian crowds’ appreciation for him. In the aforementioned autobiography, he acknowledges the role of India and her cricket-mad followers in shaping the legend of de Villiers and has admitted the influence of the IPL in his apotheosis with typically self-effacing grace.

    He is right, of course. Although he had already lit up Test cricket in India by that point, de Villiers was still maturing as a cricketer by the time the first season ended – a Test average below 40 and only 95 runs in six games for the Delhi Daredevils.

    At home in South Africa the following season, he finished third in the race for the Orange Cap, with 465 runs in 13 innings. The strike rate was 130.98, the lowest of the Delhi top four.

    It gradually improved, and how. Between the end of the first and beginning of the fourth season of the IPL, de Villiers struck at higher than his career average in all three formats of the international game.

    In 2011, de Villiers was picked up by the Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) and was consequently handed more responsibility. The franchise also had Chris Gayle and Virat Kohli to create one of the most stacked batting line-ups in the IPL.

    Bad back or not, it is here that de Villiers’ mystique became legendary, at times superhuman. Sometimes, all you need is an ‘in’, and the rest will fall into place. De Villiers explains his form in the year or so preceding the 2011 auction (837 runs in 18 ODIs for South Africa) prompted RCB to shell out over a million dollars for him. But once in, there was no looking back.

    De Villiers' humility has seen him gain a lot of fans [Sportzpics]

    De Villiers’ humility has seen him gain a lot of fans [Sportzpics]

    For all the good intentions of the Future Tours Programme, some players may not visit a country in years. Injuries, non-selection, and withdrawal can all play their part. The IPL is significant for the window it gives fans to watch players from other nations they don’t get to see every other day.

    Every trope that has attached itself to this titan (no pun intended) of the modern game has arguably crystallised in its fullest and most spectacular in the IPL. He has a 360 degree range to his shots and an extra gear that mere mortals don’t seem capable of.

    After being 63rd, third and 52nd in the battle for the Orange Cap in the IPL’s first three seasons, de Villiers has zoomed to eighth on the list of all-time top run-scorers in the competition’s history. Prior to the game against Gujarat Lions on April 18, he has 3394 runs from 112 innings at a strike-rate of 148.99.

    Barring Chris Gayle and Virender Sehwag, no one who has played a minimum of 50 innings has accumulated runs faster than de Villiers.

    His lightening fast overdrive was perhaps best demonstrated last season in the game against the Gujarat Lions in Bengaluru. De Villiers arrived at the close of the fourth over with the score at 19-1. He occupied 52 balls in scoring an unbeaten 129, smashing shots to each part of the ground.

    It was ‘AB’ in full cry, clearing the boundary rope twelve times and displaying a full range of strokes to end the contest in the blink of an eye.

    Indian crowds, and particularly Bengaluru crowds in the IPL, might almost look at de Villiers with the fond indulgence of a master who watched their pupil grow as a cricketer and ascend to superstardom.

    This is a player who has not just enjoyed a meteoric rise but has opened eyes to the possibility of what can be achieved on the cricket ground – and where it can be achieved. They feel a part of his development, having been close observers of it.

    In return, one of the finest practitioners and indeed innovators of batting has paid India, and the IPL in particular, her due credit.