Let's hear it for superman AB de Villiers
In the end, it all seemed so inevitable. Of course, Royal Challengers Bangalore were going to bungle their run-chase against Rajasthan Royals in their final league game. Of course, they were going to miss out on the final four yet again. To have somehow sneaked a spot in the playoffs, thanks to their superior net run-rate, despite winning only three of their first ten matches (all at home), would have felt somewhat flukey.
One can throw up any number of reasons for RCB’s patchy season. A feeble middle-order, poor death-bowling, an over-reliance on Virat Kohli and AB de Villiers, some poor decisions at the auction, lack of scouting in the off-season, retaining Sarfraz Khan (and persisting with him for so long), not going aggressively enough for players like KL Rahul and K Gowtham, picking Corey Anderson over Colin de Grandhomme in the early games, handing Corey Anderson a crucial final over. Etc. Etc. Etc.
You can slice it any way you want. The fact is that at no stage in the tournament did RCB crack their ideal team composition and it is hard to recall a match when the entire team’s effort was greater than the sum of its parts. If Umesh Yadav or Yuzvendra Chahal were having a good day someone was invariably leaking runs at the other end. If de Villiers was making your jaw drop at one end, a string of batsmen were likely making your jaw drop (for entirely different reasons) at the other end.
Which brings us to de Villiers, without doubt, the most versatile batsman in world cricket, and one of the most luminescent stars in the IPL, who – once again – finished the tournament before the playoffs. Consider these stellar numbers for a moment: 44, 57, 20, 1, 90*, 68, 1, 5, 72*, 69, 53. All this at a strike rate of 174.54 – the highest among the RCB batsmen – not to mention the six fifties he reeled off in his 11 visits to the middle (the joint second-highest in the tournament so far).
But enough with the numbers for now. To examine de Villiers solely through the prism of data is to disregard the heady experience of watching him bat – both the shock that his inventive strokes inspire and the joy it spontaneously brings forth, irrespective of whether one is supporting RCB or not. There is something so un-cricket-like in the manner in which he steps (bounces? prances? dances?) fully across the crease and – body and head perfectly balanced – swivels the ball ten rows over the ropes at fine leg.
There are several batsmen who have learnt to play this shot but none brings forth so much audacity, none pulls it off with so much oomph. And none brings forth a stupefied expression on Kohli’s face that could roughly translate to: ‘What the &$%&@ just happened out there?’
Irrespective of how quickly de Villiers is scoring, irrespective of all the fours and sixes flying off his bat, there is no violence in his strokeplay, no brutality of the sort that accompanies an Andre Russell cameo. Yes, the bat is pounding the ball at every opportunity and yes, the ball is soaring high into the stands (and often out of the ground at the Chinnaswamy) but there is no savagery in any of this. Perhaps it's the unorthodoxy of his footwork, and the unusual arcs that his bat traces, but de Villiers manages to arouse in us a sense of awe. Instead of cursing the bowler for feeding de Villiers a good-length delivery or blaming the captain for leaving midwicket open, we are left marveling at how he has turned a short-of-a-good length ball into a one on a good length and, with scarcely believable footwork, exploited the gaps in the field.
Added to this is the presence of de Villiers on the outfield, the boundary-riding, gravity-defying jack-in-the-box who, with one heroic leap in the air on Thursday got pretty close to breaking the internet. This may or may not have been the greatest catch of the tournament – de Villiers himself claimed that he had got himself into a bad position and made it look tougher than it actually was – but it certainly brought on the most gobsmacked reactions from those who witnessed it: be it Kohli’s wide-eyed, thunderstruck sprint towards his team-mate or the commentators’ astounded babbling for a good two minutes or the Bangalore crowds’ open-mouthed wonder (in the stands behind de Villiers) just as he completed the grab.
The man himself is notorious for staying impassive after the most difficult takes, but he too seemed floored by this madcap leap. For once, after all these years, he perhaps got a faint idea of what everyone else experienced when they saw him conjure the unbelievable.
It was a catch that made you more incredulous with each replay, a catch that you didn't think was possible until a few minutes ago, a catch that you knew you would remember for years and years (even though you might forget every other aspect of the match in question). It was a catch that made you wish that RCB would somehow stay in the tournament for as long as possible – so that we mortals could get a few more glimpses of the superman called ABD.