AB de Villiers and the art of batting
When a great batsman cuts, drives and lofts pacers on a seaming deck, he makes us guess whether his creativity is his only challenge. The hands, feet and the eyes are all corollary to his craft, as he mocks the well-written edicts of batsmanship. He teases the connoisseur's senses by playing with the word 'unthinkable', as we frenetically flip through pages in the dictionary to search for that one word to describe his genius.
How is he able to dig deep into the caverns of his brain and map out the field and tailor the gaps? Abraham Benjamin de Villiers is one such batsman who seemed to reside in a fantasy land, quite far away from Cape Town and Centurion, as he played a couple of game-changing knocks in tricky conditions for the home side in the just-concluded Test series versus India.
In the first innings of the first Test, he arrived at the crease with the score reading 7 for 2, with Bhuvneshwar Kumar making the ball hoop around the corners. But, the first ball he faced from the swing bowler, with a double trigger movement, he moved back and across to punch. It took him a little while to counter Kumar's threat, especially when he bowled a fuller length but it was not long before de Villiers opened up his front foot to drive him through covers in the ninth over. The rattled bowler pitched it short and was again taken for runs. Eventually, when India's pacers tested him in that one square foot window outside the off-stump, de Villiers was back to either solidly defending off the front foot, or allowing it go by.
He was at it again in the second innings. While South Africa suffered a major collapse in testing conditions, he looked the most assured. With the home side eight down, he went into T20 mode by clearing his front leg to swat Jasprit Bumrah for a six over long off. Bumrah was extracting disconcerting bounce and bowling at good speeds, but de Villiers invented the word improbable to loft him into the stands.
When batsmen as accomplished as Faf du Plessis and Hashim Amla were apprehensive of the ball darting around, de Villiers, just like a visionary designer, was finding space through the field. He didn't seem to be batting in the middle, instead like a pianist, he was composing rhythmic yet striking tunes in his grand own theatre. When de Villiers was in that dream zone in Cape Town, it looked as if the great batsman wasn't breaking a sweat and the conditions were all too easy. In reality, the ball was moving around almost zig-zag, with everyone else struggling to put bat to ball.
De Villiers' greatness lies in how he is able to judiciously decide when to attack and when to defend. In Cape Town, du Plessis was struggling to step forward to negate the movement but de Villiers could get his head over the front foot after facing just a few deliveries. It takes us back to the old adage that asks us to look at a batsman's feet. The point can be capsulised by how de Villiers' big toe was ready to move early, in order to defend fuller length deliveries in Cape Town.
The South African's footwork is akin to a predatory cheetah - light on his feet. And when the big toe is poised to step forward, it makes you visualise the claws of a cheetah, that grips the ground and ensures that the animal pushes forward with alertness and speed. It is also about having self-belief in your method. Just de Villiers' mere presence at the crease seemed to be transmitting warning signals to the opposition bowlers that he was aiming to master them.
There were other notable performances from batsmen through the course of a series that was dominated by pacers on mostly difficult wickets. But, for a connoisseur, watching de Villiers bat in Cape Town and Centurion was akin to a sportsman who blended skill and exemplary footwork, intertwined with supreme belief in his ability. De Villiers in a way gives you a glimpse of how batting will shape up in the future, especially in the T20 era of cricket. He is known as a 360 degree player, is a powerful batsman and a natural athlete too, but at the same time, his game is based on sound basics.
Of course just because de Villiers has been gift-wrapped with dollops of skill, it does not mean that he can walk on a cricket pitch and immediately reign supreme. We witness de Villiers' magnificence at the crease but what we don't see is him hitting thousands of balls in the nets, trying to polish every nuance of his art. We also don't see him working out in the gym to improve his speed and endurance, or building his strength. Away from the limelight, professional athletes sweat it out in anonymity in their own workshop to chase their chariot of dreams.
In his 110-Test career, just like any other athlete, de Villiers, too, has gone through days when nothing seemed to be in sync- the timing would be off, with the maestro struggling to tailor the gap. But with hard work, preparation and a free mind, it gives you the best possible chance to perform, where the mind and body are in sync to play the next ball. De Villiers made his Test debut way back in 2004 against England at Port Elizabeth, and with time, he has evolved as a batsman, constantly refined his art-form to reach the summit of batsmanship.
On a side note, long time ago, when the hockey wizard, Dhyan Chand, was a on a trip to Netherlands, the authorities had reportedly broken his stick to see whether there was a magnet inside. In a light-hearted tone, just maybe, we should try to break de Villiers' bat to see whether the great man is wielding a magical willow!