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Why AB de Villiers' ability in crunch situations should not be questioned

Finishing and Match-winning are two very distinct terminologies grossly misinterpreted today.

SENIOR ANALYST
Editor's Pick 19 May 2015, 13:11 IST
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AB de Villiers’ record is up there with the greatest ever 

It is almost a universally accepted belief now that AB de Villiers is the most versatile batsman to ever play the game of cricket and easily the best cricketer, let alone batsman, of the current generation. For someone who oozes class and panache from every pore of his body, his patience and determination to play a determined innings in Tests and ODIs is unbelievable; almost inhuman.

In very simple words, De Villiers is a freak. His abilities have never been displayed by anybody who has preceded him.

Cricket, as a game, has seen continuous evolution since its beginning in the 19th century. Whilst Don Bradman had the virtue of unflinching and unwavering concentration, Sachin Tendulkar was by far the most determined run-getter of all time. With time, the prerequisites of a great player are bound to change. And whatever way you to choose to define greatness, it’ll be tough not to get De Villiers inside its purview.

That said, one of the biggest criticisms that De Villiers has often faced from his doubters is that he is not a ‘match-winner’. I believe the term ‘match-winner’ is the most misunderstood word among cricket followers of the current generation. One simply needs to understand that a ‘match-winner’ is not equivalent to being a ‘finisher’. In fact, De Villiers is perhaps the numero uno ‘match-winner’ of this century, right up there with Tendulkar and Sanath Jayasuriya (Tendulkar does have the highest number of man-of-the-match awards in victories as well as defeats, by the way).

There is another fallacious notion that contributions in the second innings are more valuable than those in the first. My question is, why? Whilst it is not up for debate that chasing involves more pressure, batting first involves arguably the even more difficult art of pacing and building your innings with no target in sight.

Why, then, is one skill so preferred over the other? Why aren’t runs just that – runs, regardless of whether they come in the first or second innings? Having said that, De Villiers manages to hold his own even if one defines ‘match-winners’ as players who score better in victories and whilst chasing.

However, whether De Villiers is a finisher or not is a more valid question, and it will be answered later in the piece.

Let us take a look at some facts and figures in ODI cricket, which are quite likely to surprise you.

Man of the Match Awards

I hope and believe that there is no debate about the fact that the Man-of-the-Match award is handed out to the outstanding performer of the game. In the 181 ODIs that De Villiers has played, he has managed to win 22 Man of the Match awards, one less than someone who is considered to be one of the greatest match-winners of all time – Virender Sehwag (251).

Player MOM Awards Matches Matches/MOM
Virender Sehwag 23 251 10.91
Sanath Jayasuriya 48 445 9.27
Vivian Richards 31 187 6.03
Ricky Ponting  32 375 11.72
Jacques Kallis 32 328 10.25
Shahid Afridi 32 398 12.43
Brian Lara 30 299 9.97
Adam Gilchrist 28 287 10.25
Sachin Tendulkar 62 463 7.46
Yuvraj Singh 25 293 11.72
Herschelle Gibbs 22 248 11.27
Wasim Akram 22 356 16.18
Virat Kohli 20 158 7.9
Lance Klusener 19 171 9
AB de Villiers 22 187 8.5

As evident from the above table, for players who have won over 20 MOM awards (a criterion good enough to judge match-winners), De Villiers’ ratio is second only to Sir Viv Richards, Tendulkar and Virat Kohli. In fact, De Villiers manages to do exponentially better than Jayasuriya, Ricky Ponting, Shahid Afridi, Adam Gilchrist, Yuvraj Singh and even Lance Klusener, all of whom are considered to be among the biggest match-winners of all time.

To further add to this theory, De Villiers has the second highest number of MOM awards for a South African, next only to the great ol’ workhorse, Jacques Kallis.

A special comparison has been reserved for MS Dhoni, probably the greatest ‘finisher’ (not read as match-winner) of all time. Dhoni has 19 MOM awards in 262 games (13.79), adding further substance to the theory that a match-winner is different from a finisher.

De Villiers’ average and strike rate comparisons

It is almost surprising that it is widely considered that De Villiers does not score heavily in the second essay. In fact, much like a lot of players who have made their way to cricketing folklore, De Villiers is a better player chasing than batting first.

Another very important aspect of De Villiers is not only the runs he scores but the speed at which he does so, coupled with the audacious shots that drain the morale out of the opposition team. Let us have a look at some of the facts and figures to corroborate this theory.

Situation Matches Runs Average Strike-Rate 100s 50s
Career Summary 187 7941 53.65 99.12 20 46
Batting First 96 4405 51.22 104.21 15 20
Batting Second 91 3536

57.03

93.44 5 26
Successful chases 54 2226 79.50 95.45 4 17

The table above makes it amply clear that De Villiers is a slightly better player batting first. However, the most important aspect of this observation is that he averages nearly the same irrespective of whether he is batting first or second. Such roundedness is perhaps a better gauge of greatness than players whose stats are skewed heavily towards batting first or chasing. In fact, De Villiers’ average and strike rate are better than MS Dhoni, who has an average of 53.36 and strike-rate of 83.18, when it comes to chasing in ODI cricket.

If one solely considers De Villiers’ contribution in games that South Africa have won batting second, he averages an astounding 79.50 in them, coupled with a strike rate almost equal to a run-a-ball.

How such numbers can still be construed to not be ‘match-winning’ are beyond the realms of imagination!

‘A’bsolutely ‘B’reathtaking de Villiers 

De Villiers has a rather unique record of scoring all of his 20 ODI tons (at the time of dismissal or the end of the innings) at faster than run-a-ball, the only player with more than 11 tons to do so. Also, contrary to popular belief, De Villiers is an all-time great when it comes to chasing, as evident from the following tables:

Top 5 batting averages chasing (min. runs scored: 2000)

Player Matches Runs Average Strike Rate 100s 50s
Virat Kohli 92 4198 63.60 92.44 14 21
Ab de Villiers 91 3536 57.03 93.44 5 26
MG Bevan 112 2882 56.50 67.60 3 19
Micheal Clarke 94 2696 53.92 76.33 3 21
MS Dhoni 142 3789 53.36 83.18 2 27

De Villiers has the 2nd best average in the history of ODI cricket whilst chasing. He also happens to have the best strike rate in the top 30 of the aforementioned list, reiterating the fact that he not only scores valuable runs consistently, but does it at a ballistic pace.

When it comes to victories in chasing, De Villiers refuses to be left too far behind either. Why, then, is he considered to not be a match winner?

Top 5 batting averages in successful chases (min. runs scored: 2000)

Player Matches Runs Average Strike Rate 100s 50s
MS Dhoni 82 2293 109.19 90.63 2 15
Virat Kohli 59 3267 85.97 96.45 13 14
Ab de Villiers 54 2226 79.50 95.45 4 17
Michael Clarke 68` 2142 73.86 77.72 3 17
Arjuna Ranatunga 62 2007 69.20 81.78 1 13

Unfair to blame De Villiers for not finishing off games

AB de Villiers has often not had enough support from the other end

Let us end the discussion on a subjective note rather than a statistical one. By now, it should be clear that De Villiers is not only a match-winner, but one of the greatest match-winners of all time.

We have also identified the difference between match-winning and finishing up to a certain extent.

Let me be honest though; I’d be lying if I claim that De Villiers is as good as Dhoni or Bevan when it comes to finishing off an innings. Having said that, a bigger question is this: why is he expected to finish off games like Dhoni?

After all, Jayasuriya, Tendulkar and Gilchrist (though openers) were great players. How often were they expected to finish off games?

It is facile to say that De Villiers did not close off a certain game or failed in a particular crunch match. But almost half the time, the fact that such a situation has arisen only due to his own innings goes unnoticed. So does the fact that sometimes his knocks make sure difficult games do not go down to the wire itself.

The 31-year-old has the ability to take the game away from the opposition like no one else can. He has played more freakish and seemingly impossible knocks than anyone the human brain can think of.

So a few valid questions are: should such capability be allowed to be set free or asked to be controlled and channelled? If it is controlled, can he still play those mind-numbing shots we have grown so used to seeing over the years? Dhoni himself has transformed from an out and out hitter to a more sedate player in recent times. Can someone be as fiery as De Villiers and as calm as Dhoni at the same time? Will it be easy to choose one ability over the other?

Having said that, the very fact that people have this sentiment about De Villiers’ ability to close off games speaks volumes of what is expected from the supreme magician.

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