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.