Goodbye AB - The man who made jaws drop a thousand times over
AB de Villiers has retired from international cricket.
This is a surprise – and some may even say shock – for multiple reasons.
One: there was nothing about de Villiers’s game that suggested that he was running out of time. No flabby waistline, no slowing reflexes. It was only a few days ago that he nabbed one of the most spectacular catches of the IPL. And he dazzled with the bat throughout the tournament, ending with an average over 53 and a strike-rate little shy of 175. In fact, had it not been for Royal Challengers Bangalore’s tame collapse in their final game against Rajasthan Royals, de Villiers would have been preparing for a Playoff game at Eden Gardens on Wednesday and not posting a video where he announced his international retirement.
Two: Since the start of 2017, de Villiers has played 37 international games for South Africa (Tests, ODIs and T20s combined) and missed out on 19. He stayed away from Tests for most of last year in a bid to recharge himself ahead of the India and Australia series. And in January, after his match-winning (and series-winning) 80 in the Centurion Test against India – an innings that first bailed South Africa out of trouble and then put them in a position to dictate terms – he felt that he was in the “best form” of his life. Just when it seemed that de Villiers was pacing himself perfectly for the final stretch, he has now said goodbye.
Three: It seems unfair – and at some level, unjust – that the most versatile batsman of this generation, and a revolutionary of the shorter formats, will end his career without a World Cup or a World T20 medal. We sports fans are suckers for closure – a series win, a farewell hundred, a World Cup victory – and there is something about this retirement that seems so anticlimactic. Not that this takes away from AB’s greatness or his legacy – the numbers and memories are etched in stone – but how momentous it would have been for him to light up the World Cup next year and guide South Africa to a historic triumph. Just imagine the scene at Lord’s in July next year: South Africa chasing 320 in the final and de Villiers reeling off a 50-ball hundred to take them home. Fairytale, yes, but where else can we hope for such miracles apart from the sporting arena? Who better to pull off such a historic win than the peerless AB?
Which brings us to the most exciting part of de Villiers’ game: the ability to constantly stretch the limits of the possible. There was no record that was safe in ODIs, what with him blasting a 16-ball fifty, a 64-ball 150 and a 31-ball hundred – a most staggering feat considering that it was a whopping 14% faster than the previous record. And, as if to prove he could also lull us to a gentle slumber, he made a 297-ball 43 in a Test in Delhi that saw South Africa come within a session of a great escape.
More thrilling was the fact that there was no bowling plan he didn’t shred to bits. Full and outside off: the ball flew fine. Short and outside off: the ball flew square. Short and angling into his body: the ball flew over the wicketkeeper. While Virender Sehwag and Chris Gayle burnt the rule book by disregarding the tenets of footwork – relying on perfect balance and hand-eye-coordination to slam the ball to all corners – AB went in the opposite direction. He made every possible use of his feet but not like how a traditional coach would want. He danced, he pranced, he flew across the pitch, sometimes kneeling outside the sixth stump, sometimes curving himself backwards to ramp the ball over the slips. It didn’t matter what ball he was up against. If he wanted to clear short third man, the ball was going to do his bidding. If that meant switch-hitting a short ball from outside leg he would somehow find a way.
Trent Woodhill, in charge of Batting Talent Development at RCB, recently compared Virat Kohli and de Villiers to Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. “The point’s never dead for Nadal,” he said in an interview to the Wisden India website, “and the point’s never dead for Virat. And AB, he finds a way as Federer does, in conditions where others struggle.”
We can extend the comparison further. For like Federer, AB too could appear effortless with his brilliance. Rarely did he seem to lose his cool when out in the middle and, as powerfully as he struck the ball, it was hard to associate his batting with sheer brute force. The bat wasn’t a savage weapon in his hands; rather it was a prop that AB magically swished during his acrobatic performance. The ball wasn’t a battered victim once it left his bat; rather, like a bird set free, it willingly soared into the stands, happy to be liberated by the inventiveness of a genius.
Back in 2007, at the end of his retirement speech at Bridgetown, Brian Lara asked his fans: “Did I entertain?” The swooning crowd responded with a resounding cheer. AB de Villiers can ask a similar question, except the word “entertain” seems too benign for what he offered. Maybe he can take it up a notch with: “Did I make your jaw drop?” For which the answer can only be yes, yes, and yes, a thousand times over.