From the outside it would have looked like any other plumbing van.
It was being driven by a bloke who had lost his state cricket contract. He was once a kid who could bowl seriously fast, but his body was not a weapon – rather, a wasteland of stress fractures. His boss, also his coach, Brett Mortimer, had given him the job as driver.
Mortimer knew there was something special there. Had the bloke disappeared right then, he might not have even been a what-if. When he crashed his van into a team-mate’s, there was no reason for it to make the papers. He was no one; probably one bad week, one niggly injury, from packing up his life and travelling back up the coast and living out his life in obscurity. But Mortimer saw him every day in the nets. And he didn’t need Dennis Lillee to tell him this was a serious bowler. Mortimer had played cricket for years and he’d never seen anything quite like this.
Mortimer had one last crack. With Brendan Nash away on state duty, Northern Suburbs had a space open at the top of the order. So the bloke was thrown up the order to have some fun, instead of being depressed that he couldn’t bowl. He scored well, and while it was never a science, it wasn’t the first time in his life that runs led to wickets. But really, it was about belief with him. It always would be.
No one would have seen that plumbing van and believed there were 310 Test wickets in there. Not even the bloke driving it.
A few years earlier others didn’t believe the speed gun. They looked at it again. There must be something wrong. The speed gun was part of a plan by Queensland to find a real quick. But this quick? Surely not. This 17-year-old kid, wearing his father’s golf spikes, was bowling quicker than the entire Queensland squad. That can’t be right.
Wicketkeeper Chris Hartley was standing 25 metres back in a Queensland Under-19 game. Ed Cowan was facing. Hartley was taking the ball above his head. Hartley and Cowan were sharing glances. This can’t be right.
Dennis Lillee saw this kid in the nets. The kid was already thinking about joining the army to “shoot guns and get fit”. But then Lillee saw this kid bowl and said he was a “once-in-nine-lives player”. This can’t be right.
After Mortimer pulled the plug on Mitchell Johnson’s bad mood, Johnson only took a couple of years to play for Australia. The white ball seemed to love him. It exploded off the pitch and into the gloves of keeper or batsman. You couldn’t watch Johnson bowl at that point and not feel the excitement.
For whatever reason, the red ball didn’t get the hype. Even in Shield cricket, Johnson and the red ball hadn’t got along. Two five-wicket hauls, never more than 29 wickets in a season. But the white-ball work, and hell, just the look of him, it was electric. You didn’t need data analysis, biomechanists and speed guns, you just needed eyes.
Johnson was now also dedicated to cricket. There was no need to drag or convince him. He wanted it. Bad enough that he even travelled to the MRF pace academy in Chennai to work with Lillee. But his numbers didn’t improve.
His early Tests involved wickets from right-handers who chased wide balls. They had to chase them, because otherwise they’d spend hours waiting for one at them. His arm seemed to get lower almost every innings, until he was bowling fast, almost accidental, offcutters. When the batsmen didn’t chase the wide ones, he just let off pressure for whoever was at the other end. After 13 Tests he was averaging 34 with the ball.
Just when the excitement was fading he found a green pitch, against New Zealand, and their tail still shudders about it.
Two Tests later he was up against South Africa on a sluggish wicket (by WACA standards). AB de Villiers and Jacques Kallis had the score at 234 for 3; both had half-centuries. Johnson had a ball that was 70 overs old, with no reserve swing, but just his fast, and slightly more accurate, cutters. In 21 balls he took out five batsmen. He ended with 8 for 61. It was a goddamn Curtly Ambrose spell.
In South Africa for the following series he did something he hadn’t done for 20 Tests. He swung a ball perfectly. Hashim Amla could only stutter and lose balance as Johnson struck his pad. Immediately it became the thing his team, and the cricket world at large, fixated on. You could hear people whisper around the world, “No, it can’t be, but maybe it is, a Wasim Akram incarnate”.
In the next Test he made a hundred. Australia were always going to lose. But the way Johnson did it, with such long, fluid hitting, the ball just seemed to want to be smashed over mid-on. Parts of Paul Harris are still left in Cape Town after one over. Johnson’s hundred took 86 balls. In the series he was the leading wicket-taker and Australia’s third-highest scorer. Australia were fighting for the Test crown, and Mitchell Johnson Bothamed South Africa out of the series.
Johnson had almost crushed Graeme Smith’s hand. He’d discovered swing. Terrorised New Zealand. Defeated South Africa. He was the biggest, baddest damn thing in Australian cricket. No one needed Dennis Lillee to tell them how special he was.
And he hadn’t even played a Test against England.
You can smash all the other nations you want. Antagonise India. Destroy West Indies. End Bangladesh. But Australian and English players get their legend status from being great in the Ashes.
That was what Johnson was supposed to do in the 2009 Ashes. He was to lead the attack, continue England’s misery, and confirm he was the legend Australian cricket demanded he be.
By the end of the series, none of those things happened.
Johnson couldn’t bowl England out in Cardiff. Johnson couldn’t stop stories started by his mother. Johnson completely lost the plot at Lord’s. Johnson lost control of the attack. Johnson all but lost his spot in the team. And Johnson couldn’t win the Ashes.
By the time the 2010-11 Ashes came around he was an okay performer in an okay team. The beast that would become a legend was a distant memory. There were good matches, there were bad matches, this was just a cricketer doing his job.
The Gabba Test was a chance to do something special. Johnson took no wickets, made no runs, and dropped a catch. For the next Test he was either dropped, in his words, or rested, in those of Cricket Australia.
There was a moment during the next Test when Johnson was in the Adelaide nets as England smashed his team on the field. During his session, a ball got wedged into the top corner of the nets. Johnson spent the best part of ten minutes trying to get this ball dislodged. He threw balls at it, he shook the net, he tried to climb up, he used a bat, but nothing would do it. He was supposed to be looking to rekindle his magic, and instead he was doing the job of the support staff. And he couldn’t even do that right.
There must have been a part of him that thought he was an impostor. Even at his best, destroying South Africa with bat and ball, it was as if Johnson never believed in himself as much as everyone else did.
Impostor syndrome can hit anyone. Every single person in the world can tell you how good you are, they can praise you, they can idolise you, but some people can’t process it. Can’t accept it. Keep waiting to be found out. Think their success was all luck.
They say it comes from childhood, that sensitive children who are overlooked and then become successful never truly accept it. That even when they win, it all feels like it is a mistake and no one must find out. That the pressure to not be found out almost becomes the problem. They start to believe that because they had no control over their success, they have no way of finding it again.
Not that Johnson wasn’t trying to find it. Whether in the nets, or much more noticeably, out on the ground, Johnson was in a near-constant state of trying to fix his bowling. This didn’t look like a Test bowler who had led his nation. It looked like a teenager hoping that something would fix him. It was far more common to see him trying to fix his action on the walk back to the mark than it was seeing him terrorise batsmen.
The Amla inswinger pressure had never gone away. Being the guy who led an unsuccessful Ashes attack was part of what defined him. Now he had been dropped, one Test into his next Ashes. The pressure and failure was all around him. Johnson couldn’t be what Australia wanted, and worse, he looked like he didn’t even know how to ever do it.
The call was made to Dennis Lillee. Johnson had already spent the week working with his bowling coach, Troy Cooley. He had already watched his spell from 2008 against South Africa to psyche himself up. Now the big gun was needed. Lillee would come and see Johnson in the nets the day before the WACA Test. Lillee wasn’t even sure what he could do for Johnson, so he told Johnson how great he could be.
At the WACA, Johnson was great. His pace was great, his swing was great, and even his batting was great. Sixty-three runs, nine wickets and one Man-of-the-Match award.
But in the press conference he seemed to shrug and suggest the ball swung a bit luckily. The next Test was Boxing Day, and the luck wasn’t there.
The MCG gets into full voice like other stadiums dream of. That sort of guttural, communal, sweaty chorus of echoes. It’s the middle-aged man whose life has never been what he wanted it to be, bellowing at the moon while half cut. They had done it for Lillee. They had chanted his name, turning him from a cricketer into a beam of pure light.
For Johnson the accent of the chants changed. He wasn’t the alpha and omega but the punchline. In his own country, he was a musical joke, a wreck. Even in cricket’s biggest ground there was nowhere to hide. It was overcast during that Test, but the clouds over Johnson seemed the darkest.
After Perth, Johnson only got two massive English innings to bowl in – 2 for 134 and 4 for 168. He had played more than half the Tests he would ever play, and he was still no closer to finding out how to get the best out of himself. He was still bowling to the left. He was still bowling to the right. And now their chanting kept him up at night.
The mental problems weren’t all of it. People can claim it is the all-round skill, the sling action, or even the left arm that makes Johnson exciting, but it’s the pace. That raw, uncontrolled pace that makes the best in their game look slow. That makes tailenders cry. That makes commentators scream. Fans jump. That pace.
That pace was going. There was the odd spell, but mostly he was a fast-medium bowler with questionable control who didn’t seam or swing it. It was at its worst when he played against South Africa in Johannesburg. Johnson seemed to fall into medium pace. Slower than he had been as a teenager using his dad’s golf spikes. At the other end Australia had found their newest pace bowler, Pat Cummins. Josh Hazlewood and James Pattinson were around as well.
Johnson was battling injury, form and belief.
In almost three years since the last Ashes in Australia he’d managed nine Tests. His body and mind weren’t right.
This time he couldn’t go to the army and shoot guns. He couldn’t move back to Townsville. He couldn’t drive a plumbing van. He was Mitchell Johnson, and for all the baggage that came with, it also came with something pretty damn special. And Johnson fought for that.
With a stable home life as a new father, a chance encounter with an SAS vet and a career-affirming net session with Lillee and John Inverarity, Johnson started to get himself right. All those people played a part, but it would have meant nothing if he didn’t put in the effort. For the first time, he believed.
The first people to see this were the IPL folk. Then a few teams got glimpses in ODIs. People, Sachin Tendulkar included, started to talk Johnson up again. And, for perhaps the first time ever, so did Johnson. His words didn’t sound hopeful, like they had done earlier in his career. They sounded like a threat, like premonition. As if he saw the summer of Mitchell Johnson before us.
At the Gabba, Johnson started with the new ball. A full toss down the leg side. More full tosses followed. More balls down the leg as well. After three overs of the 2013-14 Ashes, Johnson had been dragged from the attack. There were times when that would have been enough. It wasn’t.
Second spell: Jonathan Trott faced Johnson. First ball, he hit him. He glared. Johnson had never had a good glare. No matter how old he was, he always looked young, fresh-faced, like a boy playing tough. The tattoos didn’t make him tough, nothing did. But this was different. Even without the charity moustache, just looking at his eyes, there was something going on in them. This wasn’t an empty glare. Trott and England felt it. So did every single person at the ground. Every single person at every single ground that summer.
Mitchell Johnson believed. Oh, didn’t we get to see what that meant. All that frustration, all those flirtations, all those false starts, all those injuries, all those chants, all those headlines, all those punchlines, all those days that he felt like a fraud, a lucky bastard, an impostor, they came out of his hand like the devil himself.
There is no way to properly explain what it felt like to see Johnson in full flight in his summer. You can talk about the noises, the fact that for every ball in that Test and the seven that followed, it felt like he was on a hat-trick. About the blood- and stump-lust that took control of you. That at times he looked like he was actually in flight, like some fighter jet roaring through the crease. That in Melbourne the entire ground, the entire city, shook for him like it had for his mentor. That in Adelaide he was one ball away from destroying the entire Adelaide renovations. In Sydney the fear, the excitement, that desperation to see his every ball was still there, still so strong. People were rushing to have grandchildren just to tell them about it. You could feel the pain of England like every wicket was being tattooed on your body. No one dared blink when he had the ball. Smartphones were in airplane mode. Fun times were on pause.
None of that gets it across, the fear, the danger, the pace, the excitement, the carnage. The everything. It was a roller coaster through hell. Like his hands were made of dynamite, like the world had found a new demon soundtracked by an endless death- metal musical.
No, this still isn’t doing it. These weren’t spells of bowling, these were physical experiences. There ain’t no TV that could do it justice, you had to be in it, feel it, live it, survive it, smell it. You weren’t watching it, you were part of it, some great big throbbing muscle thrusting him through the sound barrier. No, still not right.
Sorry, it can’t be fully explained. You weren’t there, man.
It was a once-in-nine-lives summer. Dennis Lillee was right.
And unlike the best of Australian summers, it didn’t end in Australia, it kept going. When Johnson destroyed England, a meme started online. It was a picture of Dale Steyn, pointing down the lens, and the writing said, “You beat the Poms 5-0. How cute.” Steyn had held the title of world’s best bowler for so long it had barely been a decent conversation starter for half a decade.
The old Johnson might have overthought it. Worried about it. This Johnson just bowled. At South Africa, through South Africa.
Hashim Amla almost lost his head. Ryan McLaren his consciousness, Graeme Smith lost his career. Steyn threw everything he had back at Johnson, but even Steyn, the greatest bowler of his generation, had to sit back and watch as another man shook up the world.
When the summer of Mitchell Johnson was over, so were England as a team, South Africa as the undisputed champions. This broken-down non-believer hadn’t just reached out and touched the sun, he had grabbed it and bounced someone with it.
Stuart Broad saw something. Perhaps he just didn’t want to look at Johnson. Not square in the eyes, at least. He pointed to a shiny bolt and turned a ravenous crowd into a screaming beast.
Johnson was already in his dream over with two earlier wickets. He had already bowled his dream ball to Cook the night before. He had already played his dream Test the match before.
Broad wasn’t delaying a ball, he was delaying inevitability. Certainty.
Johnson delivered a fast ball on leg stump. There were days, whole seasons, perhaps even whole years, when the same ball would have been flicked to the boundary. Broad would have fidgeted with his gear while Johnson put his hands to his head.
Now England believed every ball would be a wicket, and so did Johnson, so did everyone.
Broad hopped away from the ball, Broad’s leg stump hopped too.
Mitchell Johnson ran frantically down the pitch. Like he was in the world’s greatest dream.
No one watching this spell could actually believe he was doing this. Let alone the bloke bowling it. He couldn’t believe how easy it had become.
The beast called Mitch. Australia’s batting pitches. Rebuilding England. Kane’s textbook animation. And special guest starring Jarrod and Andy revolutionising cricket tactics as you know it.
The bats are bigger.
A batsman moves down into a dangerous crouch position while a ball is hurled at him at 90 miles an hour. While down there, he flicks over his head to an empty piece of field. The ball goes for six. “Look how far that flew. Bats today, blimey,” they gasp.
AB de Villiers stands back up and prepares for the next ball.
WG Grace isn’t remembered because of his famous beard and belly. Grace is remembered because of the runs he scored. But what is more remarkable is how he scored them. Batsmen started playing with no real foot movement. Then they moved into back-foot play. Front-foot play followed. What Grace did was combined front-foot and back-foot play. If the ball was full, he would go forward, if the ball was short, he would go back. If that looks familiar to you, it’s because we still do that. .
Ranjitsinhji said “he turned the old one-stringed instrument into a many-chorded lyre”.
But Ranji did something pretty damn amazing as well. Ranji took batting to fine leg. Before Ranji, fine leg was a place the ball went by accident. Because of Ranji’s early fear of the ball, he backed away, so his coach, Dan Hayward, tied his right leg to the ground. Ranji then invented the leg glance. A shot so weird to cricket at the time, captains often refused to put a fine leg in even while Ranji was scoring there. It was the most the field would be opened up for 100 years.
Victor Trumper made a mark too. Early batsmen, especially the gentlemen, believed hitting the ball on the leg side was vulgar. But cricket was slowly moving towards hitting the ball to where each ball dictated that it be hit. Trumper believed in hitting it to wherever he wanted to hit it. He was moving the ball across the line decades before Viv Richards and Kevin Pietersen were even born. Where the ball ended up was dependent on his mood, not dependent on the delivery or the deliverer.
Then cricket entered the batting-machine era. Men like Jack Hobbs, George Headley, Herbert Sutcliffe and Wally Hammond batted as if they had found some new code. The man who wrote that code, Don Bradman, clocked the entire game with his almost repeating, but never repeatable, 99.94.
Garfield Sobers was called the first 360-degree batsman by Barry Richards; 360 degrees wasn’t on the field but in his swing: the bat started and finished at the same point, such was the power he swung through it. Batsmen had hit the ball hard before, but never as often, for as long, with such devastating effect. Sobers’ power, much like the two Richardses who followed, had a psychological effect on bowlers. Batsmen were no longer the ones reacting but now the ones setting the terms.
Javed Miandad took a genius batting mind and turned ODI batting from unthinking slogging and moments of staleness to an art form. Miandad worked out that in all those angles between sweepers and infielders, there weren’t just singles but twos. And that the safest place to hit the ball was over the head of the fielder closest to you. By using these simple methods, the overs before the death overs became a free buffet.
Mushtaq Mohammad, Douglas Marillier and Tillakaratne Dilshan all invented amazing shots. All deserve their part in cricket history, but the next step in batting evolution was the man who used these inventions and put them into a perfect package.
AB de Villiers didn’t start with all these shots. He didn’t even start as a star. Looking back it felt like a slow evolution from flighty, talented batsman to master of the universe.
When he arrived in cricket he wasn’t in school Dilscooping. He has developed his game until there is no place on the field he cannot hit the ball. Made himself so there is no shot that cricket has invented that he is not the master of. There is no kind of bowling that can stop him from scoring a six. He is, as we sit here today, a perfect modern batsman. A beautiful hybrid of all the best batsmen who went before him.
Like Sobers didn’t invent hitting the ball hard and Bradman didn’t invent scoring massive, nothing AB has done is an invention; it is a perfection.
There was a moment during de Villiers’ 99th Test that showed what he could do compared to a normal player. His entire team, and most of the local Indians, could not handle the pitch in the first innings.
His team is caught in this endless pushing and prodding trance. Trying, more hoping, to survive. But when India’s best bowler comes around the wicket to him, instead of showing R Ashwin the respect he deserves, the respect his current bowling demands, AB just casually reverse-sweeps him to the rope.
Perhaps he hadn’t truly noticed the pitch or the situation or the bowler. Or perhaps, as happens often, AB plays out his innings on a separate plane to other people. In his world, Ashwin coming around the wicket bowling on a dangerous dusty pitch was actually some club trundler bowling on a road.
Never once has AB de Villiers had to bat on a sticky-dog wicket. Sticky-dog wickets got put down when covers became cost effective in our sport’s finance. Never once has AB had that pure fear you have when you are facing Fiery Fred, the Demon Spofforth, or that miner from Notts on a pitch that has been doused with rain and then seen some sun, which stopped the ball from playing fair and made it start playing to dismember.
Never once has AB de Villiers had to face up in a Test without a helmet. Or without adequate protection of all sorts of kinds. If he wants, he can choose from any number of guards and pads that didn’t exist for previous players – and even if they had existed, wouldn’t have been worth a damn anyway. He doesn’t have to face Thommo, naked and alone, hoping the Reader’s Digest on his thigh will allow him to walk off the field safely.
Never once has AB de Villiers had to worry about time off work to play. He doesn’t have to do the early shift before making it to the ground. He doesn’t have to wait years between series. He doesn’t have to pay to cover his own injuries. He doesn’t have to worry about eating the wrong food. He doesn’t have to worry about working out his own fitness plans. He doesn’t need to clean his own kit. He doesn’t have to worry about what he’ll do for months on end on a boat. He doesn’t have to worry about expensive phone calls when he misses his family. He doesn’t know what it is like to face Wes Hall with concerns over how he will pay his mortgage on his mind.
But never once did Grace have a team of analysts poring over every single ball he ever faced looking for that one piece of data that could end his day. Never once did Trumper have to deal with a 24-hour news cycle, and his private life becoming his personal life. Never once did Bradman have to deal with social-media trolls trying to imitate him. Never once did Graeme Pollock represent a South Africa that had racial-political selection dilemmas on a daily basis. Never once did Javed Miandad have to slog from ball one, chase ten an over, and risk his health while off balance trying to scoop a yorker past his throat.
If you are good, even really good, and from inside the big three nations, there will be a lot of noise. One good innings can start it. Virat Kohli did it with the IPL. David Warner did it with a series of slogs in a T20 against Dale Steyn. Joe Root with his first Test innings. Usman Khawaja did it with a 37.
Outside cricket’s biggest markets, things move slower. Mitchell Johnson admitted that he hadn’t seen much of Kane Williamson. Shiv Chanderpaul’s career involved endless innings in empty stadia. Younis Khan seems to almost only exist on TV.
This is historical as well. So much rich and interesting cricket history just hasn’t been documented because it didn’t interest England writers or publications at the time. Early South African Test history is spotty at best. With weak touring English teams pitted against what were often horrible South African teams, on matting pitches, it just didn’t grab the attention. It really wasn’t until the 1960s that the cricket world started noticing them.
Aubrey Faulkner, Bruce Mitchell, Hugh Tayfield, Neil Adcock, Dave and Dudley Nourse and Herbie Taylor aren’t names that get mentioned when the greats of the game are mentioned. Yet all were absolute greats of the game, almost invisible in the era before South African cricket grabbed the world, before disappearing with a lot of what-ifs.
Things are no different now. The current Test era of South Africa, where they haven’t lost an overseas Test series since 2006, hasn’t been covered like it would have been in another nation. The South African team, by large an incredibly normal bunch, have just gone about their business. Over a long period they are now the greatest team South Africa have ever had, but you wouldn’t really know that. Their press doesn’t seem to do much hyperbole. The team just plays, well.
Perhaps the fact that they can’t break their ICC tournament hoodoo. Perhaps because they have lost to Australia at home. Perhaps because they have drawn so many series. They haven’t grabbed people’s attention like they should have. As far as Test match eras go, it could well be in the top five ever.
And in many ways, AB is the face of the modern team. Professional. Talented. Adaptable. Focused. Humble. He isn’t taking photos in jacuzzis with random women. He isn’t selling his image rights for record amounts. He isn’t making huge, arrogant statements. He bats. He keeps. He’s polite.
You could imagine some American tourist sitting next to him in business class, and when asked what he does for a living, AB answering with: “I work in sports.”
Batsmen evolve, or even consciously devolve, to get the best out of themselves. Steve Waugh’s hook, Sachin Tendulkar’s cover drive – gone, because staying out there matters.
It means that batsmen get better slowly. There have been cases where a small technical change has set them right overnight, but usually it takes time.
Steve Smith didn’t just became a top Test batsman. He believed in his batting technique when he was out of the team, even when no one else would, and then had a chat with Michael Clarke about how to turn 100 into 200. But all that took a few years.
In 2008 at Lord’s, AB de Villiers was batting with Ashwell Prince. Prince was a battler at Test level, someone who through sheer will got the best out of himself. They had put on a decent partnership. Both were set. De Villiers had not been worried much by England’s bowling, and looked set for a big total. But he flicked the ball mindlessly, needlessly in the air, and was caught at mid-on. Prince fought hard and batted very well with the tail to score a hundred. But AB’s mistake meant that South Africa had to follow on.
According to Mickey Arthur’s book, Taking the Mickey, after stumps, after Graeme Smith had been forced to go out and bat by England again, Smith and Arthur confronted AB. Smith told AB he wasn’t dong justice to his talent or justifying his place in the team, Arthur explained what taking responsibility meant.
The next Test, AB walked out at Headingley with South Africa 143 for 4, 60 behind England’s 203. Prince was batting with him again. Prince made a hundred. AB made 174.
His average was under 40 in both Tests and ODIs before this. Since then he has averaged over 60 in both.
Whatever switch Arthur and Smith found, it completely changed everything. He was switched from Ramprakash mode to Bradman, Headley and Tendulkar mode.
The IPL gets flak from almost all parts, at almost all times. Sometimes it is more than deserved, sometimes it is just the easy target.
But the IPL has done some very important things. South African players, and coaches, have got experience and been well paid. The money that is on offer is important for a country that is not rich in cricket terms. The experience and learning is just as important.
What the IPL has done for cricketers from smaller nations is made their star brighter, and kept in consistently in front of people. Brendon McCullum, Chris Gayle and AB de Villiers have become massive IPL megastars. And that isn’t just a big thing in India; the IPL, and it’s accompanying noise, is a global thing.
In the IPL, AB averages 36. His strike rate is 144. That is a lot of time on TV hitting sixes. Being awesome.
That might not be why he is so respected. Maybe it is the 33 off 220 balls. Or his fourth innings to chase down 400 in Perth. Or his two double-hundreds in Asia. Or the fact he did things in the 2015 World Cup that computer-game players couldn’t do.
The IPL innings might not be as important, or special, but they are louder.
Cricket has slowly been moving towards separating its formats since Dean Jones became the world’s best ODI batsman. From then on, players like Chris Harris, Michael Bevan, Russel Arnold, Nathan Bracken, Jade Dernbach and Lasith Malinga have become specialists in certain skills that made them top limited-overs players. There has, and will always be, players who are just good at cricket.
But for most, they are good or less good, depending on the format they are playing in. That rule does not apply to players of the level of AB de Villiers. If it involves cricket, AB would be great at it.
That is not true of all of his contemporaries. Dale Steyn might be the first fast bowler you pick in your Test team, but he wouldn’t be in your ODI team. MS Dhoni’s keeping, batting and calculating are flawless in limited-overs, but in Tests he has nowhere near the same impact. Even Mitchell Johnson has to take a back seat in ODIs where Mitchell Starc is concerned.
Since the 2008 Headingley Test, de Villiers averages over 60 in Tests and ODIs © Getty Images
That isn’t the case for AB. If you were picking one batsman to represent you in Tests, ODIs and T20s right now, it would be him. If you were just picking one batsman to represent you in Tests, then another in ODIs, he’d be the guy you picked, and despite his T20 international record, he’d still be on your shortlist for that as well.
He’s not a great all-round batsman. He’s great in every single discipline. Not good. Not better than average. Not able to adapt. But instantly, and perfectly, suited to every single part of it.
You can break it all down as well. There is no part of batting that he isn’t great at. No shot in which he isn’t one of the best. Not one facet that he cannot excel at.
Continent by continent, format by format, day by day, shot by shot, AB de Villiers is great.
The best Australian and West Indian batsmen of the eras in which those teams led the world always had it slightly easier than others. They didn’t have to face their own in the highest-pressure situations. Sure, Viv Richards faced a young Curtly Ambrose in the Red Stripe from time to time. And Ricky Ponting occasionally tried to loft Shane Warne back over his head. But it wasn’t often, it was barely seen by people outside the small domestic-geek world, and it wasn’t high-stakes.
That world was exploded by the IPL. Now mate v mate, as they promoted domestic cricket in Australia, is big business. And while AB de Villiers may not know what it is like to face Vernon, Morne and Dale on a green one at Cape Town, he does get to play against them at times in the IPL.
When Steyn was defending a reasonable total for Sunrisers Hyderabad against AB’s Royal Challengers Bangalore, he knew AB was the wicket he needed. Twenty-eight runs in two overs was the chase, but at five wickets down, AB’s wicket should win the match. Every single ball he faces takes you further from victory.
The first ball was straight, on a good length. It was a slower ball. AB swept it for six. The next ball, Steyn went for the yorker. It was a 90mph yorker. But AB was back in his crease. He needed a foot or two, and he turned the ball into something he could punch straight back over Steyn’s head for a six. The next two balls were a leg-bye getting him off strike, and then a single getting him back on.
Steyn changed the entire field. He knew AB. He knew what he might do in this mood. Mid-off came up. The ball was full and straight, and AB was set up to hit it to mid-on, but his hands changed late, like he suddenly remembered where the field was, and the ball flew over mid-off’s head.
The field changed again. Fine leg came up. There was a shimmy from AB. He faked that he was going to give himself room, and then he ran across the crease until his feet were touching the wide demarcation line. His bat was now off the pitch. Steyn was full and straight just outside off stump. It looked like AB was scrambling, like he was running too far, like he was about to slip. Like he had made a mistake.
Then AB paused the world. He stopped time, he found balance, he erased what was happening, and from two feet inside the line of the ball he swept Dale Steyn.
Into the second tier at the Chinnaswamy.
The commentators screamed. The crowd screamed. The scoreboard screamed. Even in the IPL hyperbole, where even the most mediocre can get screamed, this noise stood out. This shot stood out. This man.
Steyn’s over went for 24 of the 28 required. He went back into the field and didn’t look like the world’s best Test bowler but a lost man. Eventually he just joined in the clapping. There was nothing left to do.
On the eve of AB de Villiers’ 100th Test, he became the world’s No. 1 Test batsman. He is also the world’s No. 1 ODI batsman. In T20 cricket, internationally he’s not starred; domestically he’s a beast.
But even while he has spent the last seven years in beast mode, he hasn’t been universally feted, like he should have been. Lots of things have happened since AB started being amazing, let alone since he became No. 1 in the Test rankings for the first time in 2012. Sachin was still playing then; Ricky Ponting as well. Kumar Sangakkara and Younis Khan found golden form. Michael Clarke just exploded. Alastair Cook could bat for weeks on end. Brendon McCullum started doing amazing things. Kevin Pietersen, Virender Sehwag and David Warner have grabbed attention.
This is the era of flat pitches, small boundaries, weak attacks, and those damned big bats. Everyone is scoring. Many of them are doing it quickly.
That is not even mentioning that in his own South African side were three of the best batsmen his country had ever produced. One of whom, Mr Kallis, was the greatest cricketer in his nation’s history.
Then, just as we were about to move on to the part where we all are fixated on AB, the next wave came storming in.
Virat Kohli in limited-overs cricket is ranked No. 2 in both formats. Kane Williamson is ranked at three in ODIs and five in Tests. And Joe Root and Steve Smith have been swapping the Test No. 1 ranking between them. Even outside the bigger names, almost every country seems to have someone with serious talent at a young age: Darren Bravo, Mominul Haque, Angelo Mathews and Asad Shafiq.
None of them are AB. But there are only so many inches, so many tweeters, so many hours in the day. Sleep through his 31-ball hundred, and amazing as it is, it is just a number. The day before it, there was a Big Bash game, Nepal played UAE, Ireland played Dublin. The same day, Australia played India. The next day Scotland and Ireland. Even if you do go back, it is amazing, but it looks the same as any one of the many YouTube highlight packages of AB. Almost cartoony. And considering he does it again and again, if you don’t see them, your mind starts to squish them all into one.
These amazing innings, from AB and others, are just part of cricket’s endless news cycle.
During the 2013-14 summer of Mitchell Johnson, AB de Villiers faced him in Pretoria. Devastating as Johnson had been against England, bowling deliveries that modern science tells us were over 150kph, and felt over 160kph, he was even scarier in that first innings in Centurion. Ryan McLaren was lucky to leave with his life. The ball seemed to be past South African batsmen before they were aware it had been bowled.
South Africa’s second highest score was 25. De Villiers made 91. As fast as Johnson was, as brutal, as unruly, as unimaginable, as dragony, AB DeVilliers just handled it. At times it was as if he could stop the ball midway down the pitch, like Neo in The Matrix, and decide what to do next, and then just restart the world and dispatch the ball.
AB has time that doesn’t exist.
Steyn has made the Neo comparison before. Maybe the Wachowski brothers were cricket fans, because before bullet time, it was the great batsmen who made time stop. Who made the world fade away as their brains thought about complex equations in the milliseconds before playing their shot.
There is a moment, for all batsmen, when everything has kind of already happened, and now it is the ball in charge, not the batsman. But the greats just get longer before that happens. The scrappy batsman is always just getting his foot onto the ground just in time; the great, his foot was there waiting. There are times when AB, like the best before him, seems to know what is coming next. Science, through Tim Noakes’ research, has taught us that batsmen read the bowlers far more than even the cricketers themselves knew. That is why you can face Shoaib Akhtar at 100mph, but a bowling machine at 100mph is unplayable.
When AB is in full form, it feels like he just knows what is going to happen next. He is there so early. How did he know it would be the full ball outside off? Was it the field, was it the wrist, was it in the bowler’s eyes? Did he see it in the bowler’s last few steps? Did he know before the bowler turned at the top of his mark? Did he know several balls in advance? Did he know the morning of the game every ball that would be delivered?
For a normal batsman, it is the science of batting, for AB it is the magic of batting.
It is unmistakably a modern pop-rock combo. You can feel the drummer’s alienation, the lead guitarist’s disdain for everyone, the bass player’s insouciance, and the other guitarist’s utter usefulness.
There is also a singer. He’s clean-cut, good-looking, wearing jeans and a check shirt, but there is little rock about him. There is no edge. No interesting look. Not unshaven. Good-looking.
The lyrics are delivered in a non-threatening soft-rock way, but with the odd Southern African accent. The whole thing has just enough red to impress a grandparent.
The lyrics of the song include, “Be the best that you can be”, “To believe in anything, you dream”, “To live it, to breathe it”, “Just feel it in your heart”, “Make a noise, just be the one”, “Show them who you are”, “Stand up tall and make a noise” and “Just be the one.”
This isn’t very rock’n roll. It’s hard to imagine Bruce Springsteen, Ian MacKaye or Bon Scott delivering them. The believe-you-can message slaps in you the face repeatedly. As such, there is nothing remarkable about this song.
But it is remarkable because of whose song it is, because the singer is AB de Villiers. This is like a look inside his brain. His personal mantra. You can almost imagine him whispering it to himself between balls. Maybe it doesn’t make him massively exciting, but this song shows his vision of courage, of single mindedness, of how to achieve.
It also shows that AB wants to be a rock star. Based on this song, he probably won’t be. With a bat, he already is.
The bats aren’t bigger. The batsmen are bigger. The batsmen are different.
They pump iron. They work on twitch fibres. They strengthen their cores. They transfer their weight. They switch-hit. They clear their front leg. They range-hit. They study tapes. They hit everywhere. They back their instincts. They attack from ball one. They are fearless.
They do all that to be as good as AB de Villiers.
Pakistan’s win, England’s potential positives, masters of tweak, the era of part time, doctor talk and beach cricket.
Random historical players mentioned:
Here is itunes link.
Viru, Zaheer, Shoaib, Adil, Cook, Trevor Franklin, Craig Howard, Blackwood, Rangana and Shiv Sena are all here.
What has Ian Bell replaced his hands with?
Craig Howard wormholes.
Shoaib Malik’s new empire.
Why we hate some teams now.
Episode will appear on itunes right here.
There is a flash. It’s up and over a bunch of slips, maybe a gully, and a third man. The ball just disappears up, out of sight, before dropping over the rope. The third man is puffing hard, but this wasn’t for him. There is a frustrated, faceless bowler, an unspecified ground and a generic captain rubbing his forehead.
As it happens you can hear whispers of the batsman being compared to Sachin. But that is unfair. This is something different.
There are some things that shouldn’t be explained. Maybe that’s why we don’t get Victor Trumper. We search for answers, facts, numbers and reasons. For some people that doesn’t work; you have to see them, feel them. They are part of a time and place you don’t get. You are not meant to understand what they stood for, just know that it was something special through all the witnesses.
Yet, even when you weren’t there, you had no context, no visuals, no memories, no experience; he could still move you. Sometimes it was the actual numbers alone. Just starting at a scorecard, there was an experience of him that just grabs you. The man who wore no number, could with a simple 200 out of 330, give you a sudden rush of blood, that slight, magical dizzy feel of something you can’t quite explain.
There are some who say he only makes runs on Asian flat tracks. It feels like abusing a painter for preferring to use canvas instead of wanting to paint a live shark. What he created with the flat tracks was unlike what anyone else would, or could. There were times when he scored that it felt like Asia had been created just so he would have this stage.
There is a flash over the leg side. It’s a drop-kick, a pick-up, a smack. The bowler is just an extra, a vessel. The ball goes over a rope, a fence, some spectators, a hill. It hits a scoreboard. Maybe it goes over it. Maybe it disappears into the distance. Maybe it explodes the scoreboard like you see in them Hollywood baseball films. The whole thing happened like it was preordained, like it was supposed to happen that way, and that time, for some secret reason.
He just stands there. Looking generally disinterested. People around the world are yelling, jumping, screaming, laughing. Mouths are wide open, jaws are on the floor. But he doesn’t react that way. He almost never does.
There is a flash outside off. The bat has missed the ball. Yet the same general look of disinterest and calmness he has after a boundary follows a play and miss. Other days he uses the same smile after his best shot, or his worst.
Playing and missing is supposed to be a test of who you are as a human being. Do you believe in luck, do you believe in hard work, do you believe in faith? In his case, none of these applied. As to whether the ball went into a scoreboard, into a crowd, onto a roof, or safely nestled in the keeper’s gloves, it was gone. Finished. That moment, that euphoria, that danger, doesn’t matter anymore. The greatest legcutter, the sexiest doosra, or a mystery ball fired from a cannon, it doesn’t matter. It could be a long hop. A full toss. It just goes past him. When you bowled to him, you weren’t bowling to a batsman; you were bowling to a belief system.
There was comfort in his madness. Others have stopped, slowed, changed, restricted, just to survive, to thrive, to score all that they could score. Not him. Maybe he just couldn’t slow down, couldn’t hold back. He was what he was, a wild animal of batting.
There is a flash through point. It seems to exist on his bat and at the boundary at the same time. It was a cut but could have been a drive. They all went the same way, just as fast. Before the commentator has had time to react, the bowler has placed his hands on his head or the crowd is fully out of their chairs, the ball’s journey has been completed.
Maybe it’s Chennai. Maybe it’s Melbourne. Maybe it’s Lahore. Maybe it’s Galle. Maybe It’s Steyn. Maybe it’s Akhtar. Maybe it’s McGrath. Maybe it’s Murali. It’s all too quick. He’s already moved on.
There are people who say he is just a slogger. That’s a misunderstanding of slogging. Sloggers throw the bat recklessly without a method or a base. They always run out of luck, out of time, are found out. This was Zen slogging. He has a slogger’s energy, a batsman’s eye, and a tranquil mind. It’s an odd combination. It shouldn’t work. It didn’t always.
But when it did, the innings was something that changed things. He could, when applied correctly, change the future. At other times, it was as if he could predict it. And if he didn’t change the future of batting, he, at the very least, foretold it.
There are batsmen you can explain. You can unravel their magic; paint it for others to see. But he was above explanation. You couldn’t unravel what he did, you simply had to reclassify it. His batting wasn’t from the manual. It wasn’t like the others.
If anything, it was a self-help manual, a religious text, wrapped up in cover drives. A road map for better living was right there in the middle of the ground. Play your shots, forget your mistakes, forget your success, keep playing your shots. Believe. Sehwagology.
There is a flash back past the bowler. There is someone, somewhere, stating that it is impossible to play that shot, from that ball. Someone else, somewhere else, is comparing him to another batsman. There is another someone, somewhere online, typing out their theory on his flaws. But at the ground their words get drowned out in applause – not applause, a cacophony of screaming.
There is a flash. A sudden burst of bright light. A brief display of joy. A moment. An instant. Virender Sehwag.