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The genius of AB

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A bonafide genius, AB de Villiers was a rock star who went into an impenetrable bubble with the bat in hand, writes Rohit Sankar.

Seven for two. There’s palpable tension in the air as AB de Villiers jogs in, adjusts his helmet, takes a sniff of the Newlands air in, and claims his position at the non-striker’s end. He has batted just once in Test cricket in two years. A fifty against Zimbabwe a few days back in a four-day Test. Before that? 0, 0, and 0 against England. “AB de Villiers and his tale of ducks” goes a headline.

De Villiers gets on strike a ball later and sends the first delivery from Mohammed Shami, slightly tailing in towards leg with a neat flick for four. Not an extravagant extension of the arms, just a jab through the leg-side, the free flow of the bat cut down as though it would prick a barbed wire fence.

The next ball is wide and swinging away late. Well left. None of those overdramatic leaves that are starting to trend. A plain raise of the arms cut short again in one swift movement. A watchful front-foot defence follows.

Two overs later Bhuvneshwar has his third as Amla trudges back. No feathers ruffled at the other end, though. De Villiers goes drive, drive, slash, cut. All control, all timing, follow-through of the bat cut off. Four fours off Bhuvneshwar in one over. 65 off 84 in a team score of 286, the highest score in the Test across four innings. South Africa win by 72 runs.

***

A video by Cricketyard.com has de Villiers giving a masterclass on batting technique. “I always talk about a little box that surrounds me. I don’t want any part of my bat, feet, head, nothing to leave this box. Everything must happen in this box… I like to feel that I am really pushed into a box. That I am not allowed to leave this box.”

***

There’s thunderous applause around the Sydney Cricket Ground as AB de Villiers walks in. Two months before, he’d shredded this West Indies attack to bits in a 44-ball 149, the fastest hundred in ODI cricket. This is a World Cup, though, and South Africa are known to do funny things at this event.

It’s Chris Gayle bowling. West Indies have a slip, a silly point, and a leg slip for de Villiers. 18 balls for 19 runs, 0 fours, 0 sixes. It’s a sedate start from de Villiers, but no one’s seen him seething underneath those helmets. His team had just lost a game of footvolley pre-match as part of the warm-up routine. “I am going to destroy these guys [West Indies]”, de Villiers had muttered in Afrikaans before walking in for the game, Dale Steyn reveals in an interview. True to the word, he changes gears swiftly. 162 not out in 66 balls, 17 fours, 8 sixes.

***

“This guy [AB] has complete control that he can defend the ball coming at 145kph and the ball would rest at his feet. That is a unique talent. That just doesn’t happen. Nobody in the world that I have bowled to can do that,” Steyn says in a Cricket Monthly interview in 2018, running through, painfully, the three gears de Villiers unfurls in the nets.

“It is almost easier playing him in a match because if he does get out, he is actually out. In nets, even if he gets out he is still there for more time and he is going to smash you. It is torture.”

***
39 needed off three overs. Steyn is steaming in to bowl at de Villiers in the Chinnaswamy stadium with RCB’s hopes resting on the South African and him acing the battle against his countryman. Steyn can bowl two of the three overs left.

A throat-killer to start with. Brandished with disdain over mid-wicket for six. A slower ball. Front leg out of the way and slogged over mid-wicket for six. A 146 kph yorker on middle stump. Moves to the leg-side, lofted over cover for six. A 142 kph length ball. Scooped from outside off over fine leg for four. A single of the last ball and four, four, six off the first three balls of the next over. Mortals watch. The game is won with seven balls to spare.

***
Batting is a reaction to an action initiated by the bowler. With de Villiers, it felt like an alternate reality where a riled-up batter chose to set up a bowling machine to program where it bowled before he smashed the hell out of leather.

Pause through a few videos of de Villiers. Forget the mighty sixes, the desperate bowlers, and the deafening shouts from the crowd. Watch his movements closely.

Raised bat, eyes fixed, crouch, rooted back foot, the swing.

Ball halfway down, de Villiers has moved in his crease, sure, but there’s no way you can anticipate what shot he will play. It’s almost as though time failed to clock his movements after a point while everything else ticked on.

Screengrab from video by Star Sports

***

“If I could have my career over again,” de Villiers says in his tutorial, “this will be the first shot that I’ll teach myself: the late block. Once you can play this shot, everything else will come naturally to you… Every shot I play, I set up to play a really late defensive stroke.”

Joke.

For all the myriad of shots he awed fans with, he set himself up to play the late most basic of shots: the defensive block. Every single time.

“That flame no longer burns brightly,” he announced on Friday, sending the cricket world into gloom.

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