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Charles Darwin is often credited with using the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’ for the first time. Herbert Spencer used it in his book ‘Principle of Biology’ way back in 1864.
For the uninitiated, the theory both the authors espoused was that species evolve. If they don’t evolve, they will not be able to survive in this world. In a nutshell, ‘natural selection’ is a process that ‘tests’ the ‘fitness’ of species, and only the ‘fittest’ will pass the ‘test’ and ‘survive’.
Superimpose Darwin on the field of any sport in the world and things are not entirely different.
Think about the 100m Butterfly Stroke (long course), for instance. György Tumpek held the first ever record at 1:03.4 way back in 1957. At the time, a sub 1-minute time seemed like a distant dream but was breached as little as 3 years later by Lance Larson on June 26, 1960.
49 years hence, a legend in his own right and arguably the best swimmer to ever grace the sport, Michael Phelps did the unthinkable, he clocked an unbelievable 49.82 and to this date remains unbroken as the fastest time ever.
Cricket has evolved a country mile as well, maybe not as evidently as sprinting or swimming, but nonetheless, the game today is an anti-thesis to the first ever Test Match on 15th March 1877.
The Heroes of yesterday
Sir Donald Bradman was unfortunate to play only Test matches. There is no doubt that his insane average of 99.94 spread across 52 tests is a bit too much for any current player to better, but those who saw him play, those who wrote folklores about him swore by the old gods and the new that each and every stroke he played glided on the surface like an impending calmness on the sea-shore.
The Don hit 6 sixes in his Test career. To put things into perspective, Rahul Dravid has cleared the rope 21 times in his career. Though the Australian legend always scored at a brisk pace, he never really mastered the art of hitting through the air. He never needed to. But what if he played in this era? Can one simply assume that since he was such a great player, aerial play would have come easily to him?
Survival of the fittest – The game today was probably not the Don’s forte, the game during his time most certainly was.
Sachin Tendulkar was in a league of his own. What Tendulkar had and none other did was impeccable longevity. Ponting had a purple patch, Lara had one, but none of them could keep it up for 24 long years. And Tendulkar possessed an uncanny ability to adapt. From an out-and-out blaster to one of the cleverest gatherers later in his career, Tendulkar’s transformation was one for the generations.
Tendulkar’s horizon collided with de Villiers’ rising sun. For someone who has played across 4 decades, Tendulkar has seen it all from his debut in 1989 to his last game in 2013. During his time, only Michael Bevan could average consistently higher.
However, times changed, rules changed, the game changed. Tendulkar himself was a completely different player than what we were used to seeing in the 90’s. Tendulkar’s ODI average 44.83, an aberration in the generation he played is now commonplace for the current crop. Greatness in the 90’s and early 2000’s meant an average over 42, today the benchmark has risen to over 50.
Could Tendulkar have been a better player than de Villiers had he made his debut a decade later? Probably yes, in all likelihood. But Tendulkar played in a generation of ‘correct’ cricket and he ruled the roost for close to two decades.
The game has moved beyond ‘correct cricket’. It is about angles and outrageousness. Could Tendulkar be a better improviser than AB? Could Tendulkar have possibly matched his insane average and strike rate? Could he have been as impactful? Probably. Was he? No.
It never was his kind of game. Cricket was never played that way as long as he was around.
AB’s ODI Career
Speaking of which, whenever there is a claim that AB is probably the most impactful player the game has ever seen, the name of Viv Richards invariably comes up for comparison.
Viv Richards played 187 games in his ODI career as opposed to AB who currently has 195 caps. Being at almost the same ground, it is easy to statistically compare the two gemstones.
|AB de Villiers||8403||23||47||54.21||100.28|
There is always a counter argument that stats don’t tell you the complete story. But if someone has scored more runs, more hundreds, more fifties at an average that is 15.34% better and 11.18% faster than his counterpart, certainly the comparison is moot?
Let us look at it this way. Viv Richards certainly played against better bowlers, at a time when the pitches weren’t as flat and the bats weren’t as good.
But does that mean he is better than AB? AB has a 15.34% and 11.18% leeway when it comes to average and strike-rate respectively. How can one say he wouldn’t have done better than Viv had he played in the same conditions?
How can one say that Viv would have held on to his own in a generation where even Hashim Amla has the same strike rate as he did?
There we go again – survival of the fittest, the game has evolved, so much so that Hashim Amla, not one of the biggest hitters of the cricket ball today has the same career strike rate as Viv Richards. De Villiers, however, is in a league of his own, an untouchable league.
Statistically, de Villiers is the best ODI player in the history of the game. For players who have played over 35 games, his average of 54.21 is the highest ever for an individual, better than Michael Bevan, better than MS Dhoni.
But that is not enough. When you couple it with his strike rate of 100.28, you realise he has no competition in the world. There are only 2 players who have scored over 2000 runs and have a career strike rate over and above that of AB – Shahid Afridi and Virender Sehwag. They average 23.57 and 35.05 respectively.
James Faulkner is the only other batsman in ODI to average over 40 and strike it more than a run a ball in his career. However, it remains to be seen if he can actually keep that up over a period of 100 games or so.
This is how good de Villiers is in ODIs – one can argue away that he played in a generation favourable for batsmen, but the fact is one simply cannot superimpose events and generate results based on whims and fancies. Fact remains that in the current scenario, in the evolved scenario, de Villiers is the best there ever was.
A master of all formats
Speaking of Test matches, de Villiers’ average of over 50 is again a testament to the class of this South African genius. New Zealand, Zimbabwe, and Bangladesh are the only Test-playing nations he hasn’t scored a 100 against – his highest scores against the former two are 97 and 98 respectively. In all likelihood, he will end up scoring a Test ton against each and every Test-playing nation by the times he calls curtains to an illustrious Test career.
Known more for his outrageous stroke play, de Villiers had, contrastingly, never missed a Test match for his side, playing in 98 consecutive matches since debut before taking a break to be with his first born child.
In contrast, he refused to play a single T20 for the Proteas since losing to India in the 2014 T20 World Cup until July this year against Bangladesh, undoubtedly to prepare himself for the impending World Cup to be held in India early next year.
If that does not speak about the class and character of an individual, what does?
Changing the perception of the game
De Villiers is certainly not only about records. Just the manner in which he takes the game away from the opposition in a matter of seconds is serenely breath-taking to watch. There are players like Chris Gayle who bludgeon their way to big scores, but de Villiers is different.
He caresses the ball, he is gentler, more innovative and a sight for sore eyes. One tends to just sit back and enjoy his ‘controlled aggression’, his 360-degree hitting and his calm demeanour.
And when he wants to, he can keep blocking you day and night to save a Test match, having done it more recently against India and earlier against the Sri Lankans and the Australians.
As Garfield Robinson once said, “Viv Richards stepped to off to flick the final ball of the West Indies innings for six in the 1979 World Cup final against England. He walked off the field, he claimed, thinking, ‘that shot is my own invention.’ That kind of innovation is commonplace in today's game. Cricket has changed.”
Cricket indeed has changed. And in this changed scenario, no horse is better for the course than AB. He destroys attacks with elegance, panache and chutzpah and yet the opponent cannot hate him but end up respecting him even more.
Could the Don have bettered AB had he played in this scenario? Could Viv have been as destructive, if not more? Who knows how the great players of yesterday would have played today? Maybe they would have taken today’s game like a duck to water, maybe they would have slowly withered away.
Speculations and theories aside, de Villiers is the best there has ever been, better than Viv, better than the Don, better than Sutcliffe, Tendulkar, Lara or Ponting.
Indeed, the fittest has survived and carved a niche for himself that might take generations to dislocate.