“While most batsmen are stuck in a ghetto at the age of 33, de Villiers is back after his self-enforced break and middling the bejesus out of cricket balls. The more he bats, the more it appears that cricket needs him more than he needs cricket”.
Ishant Sharma jogs in, bowls a short a good length delivery at AB de Villiers and the inhuman, super mesmeric batsman with all the chutzpah in the World, goes back into his crease, plays as close to his body as possible, as late as possible, defends into the off-side and immediately lifts his head – motionless as a picture until then – and looks at his partner hoping to scamper across for a single.
It is perhaps the most monotonous moment in AB de Villiers’ tenure at the Centurion wicket in the second innings, his 121-ball 80 filled with some audacious, unforgettable shots including ten hits to the boundary ropes. But, peep closer to de Villiers’ technique and it is seemingly the moment that separates him from the 21 other players participating in this Test match.
Playing the ball late, defending with a 45 degree angled bat just as the ball is closing in on the stumps is his staple diet. It is not merely a defensive stroke. There is intent written all over the defensive shot, almost sending out a warning signal to the fielders in the ring that they better not close in on him.
“I don’t have a defensive mindset when I do it,” he says of setting up for the defensive block in a batting tutorial video.
They say the art of batting is all about self-discovery – ‘what works for one may not work’ for another is a key sentence when talking about batting technique. AB de Villiers was always a flamboyant, attacking-minded batsman right from the time he made his debut in whites as a 20-year old. But on a placid Ahmedabad wicket in 2008, the yellow-maned, glam-boy discovered another facet to his batting. He calls it a major “turning point” in his career.
He walked up to Jacques Kallis, his partner at the crease, midway through the innings which would turn out to be his maiden double-century in Tests, and says that he discovered the perfect way to play the defensive block. It might seem bizarre considering that an opener (He started off as an opener) hadn’t mastered the most important stroke in the batting textbook until after four years since his debut.
“If I could have my career over again,” he says in the same tutorial video, “this will be the first shot that I’ll teach myself – the late block. Once you can play this shot, everything else will come naturally to you. Every shot I play, I set up to play a really late defensive stroke.”
Once de Villiers learned how useful the late defensive shot is, there was no turning back. The current technique he uses has evolved from that sweltering, blistering day at Ahmedabad. You see him talking about grip, stance, balance and every other aspect of batting in tutorials but nothing strikes you as much as how attacking a real defensive shot can be. Going deep in the crease and playing late is a statement of intent too for AB de Villiers.
“That [going deep] is my best chance of getting into a really, really good position for my other strokes. And if it’s a really good ball, I will sort of succumb to the bowler and say, ‘Listen, well bowled, I’m going to do the late shot.’ And I might still get off strike if it runs down to third man”, de Villiers says.
The thing that strikes you about de Villiers first is just how talented he is. He has a god-gifted hand-eye coordination and amazing bat speed. It is tempting to call him the most talented sportsman to have represented South African cricket, if not cricket in itself. But zoom closer and you see that the 19,514 International runs across formats are more than a result of just talent.
We often talk of how de Villiers’ ‘cricketing sense’ allows him to read a bowler’s mind and decipher his next ball. He may or may not. But the point is that he doesn’t need to. With his ability to go deep in the crease combined with a stupendous hand-eye coordination, de Villiers can wait and decide which shot -amongst the zillion he has in his repertoire – he wants to play over a cup of coffee by the time the ball arrives from the bowler’s hand to the other side of the pitch.
Technique and evolving the same to suit the different formats, different pitches and different kinds of bowlers have been AB de Villiers’ success mantra. Playing late not only gives him ample time – quite a few milliseconds more than most batsmen – but also a firm control over his wide array of shots. Going deep in the crease, he virtually eliminates any trouble caused by late swing, reverse swing or pace variations. Like he says, it also sets him up for other shots in his repertoire.
Another key aspect that defines de Villiers’ batting is his unmistakable back and forth trigger movement. Every time the bowler runs in, de Villiers positions himself with his legs aligned to his shoulders and goes back into the crease – not losing the alignment – before taking a quick forward trigger and playing the shot.
It makes him equally strong on the front and back foot. When we talk of de Villiers, we rarely say that he is a front-foot player or a back-foot player. This is because his trigger movement allows him to go back and forth seamlessly. It is a key-point in great cricketers. Steve Waugh, often considered a predominantly back-foot player, used to nail the on-drive and cover drive as well as any batsman in the history of cricket. De Villiers is similar but at a much higher plateau.
This is a vital aspect of de Villiers’ batting. He feels that it gives him the necessary rhythm – a quintessential facet of his batting – at the crease, so much so that he shadow-practices the movement a lot of times, just to ensure that he is in fine form. How many batsmen in the World can confidently say that he is in form after a practice session without a bat and a ball? That is AB de Villiers for you. He can visualize the bowler steaming in and fine-tune his rhythm at the crease. Woah!
All of this can come down to nothing if not for his impeccable, almost enviable balance at the crease, a direct result of two factors – a low center of gravity and batting within a box.
Low centre of gravity
A key to de Villiers 360 degree batting is his unfaltering shape and still head at the time of meeting the ball. Even when he goes all unorthodox and stoops low to lap, reverse lap or scoop a ball, you notice that de Villiers maintains his balance and crouches low to ensure that his centre of gravity is lowered.
This is more physics than cricket or acrobatics but for an all-round sportsman like him, physics comes naturally. For those of you unfamiliar with the concept of centre of gravity, here is a small example.
You see the bus is balanced in the left side image because its centre of gravity (CG) is lower. When de Villiers goes down for his laps and scoops, more often than not he maintains shape and ensures he doesn’t fall over like the bus in the right side image. Widening the base also prevents from falling over and as such you see a rather spread out legs when de Villiers executes his unearthly shots behind the keeper.
Batting within a box
This is an inevitable aspect of batting but nobody does it better than the 33-year old talismanic batsman. Batting within a box is virtually imagining a box around the batsman at the crease and ensuring that none of his bat, pad or head goes outside the box.
“I always talk about a little box around me. I don’t want any part of my bat, feet, head..nothing to leave this box. Everything must happen within this box. Because that is where I have all my power. In golf they talk of a compact golf swing, you almost swing in a box. It’s the same with my batting. I like to feel that I am really pushed into a box”, he says in a batting tutorial video.
This works wonders for de Villiers. It prevents him from taking a huge stride forward and putting himself in a vulnerable position against the ball swinging in while it also prevents him from chasing really wide balls in Tests.
All of this combined makes a good, if not great batsman. But de Villiers is superhuman. This is where his ability to psychologically win over the bowler comes into play. In the first Test at Cape Town, we saw the former skipper walk out with all his charisma and transfer the pressure onto the Indians when South Africa were 12/3. The counter-attacking 17 run over against Bhuvneshwar Kumar was perhaps the turning point of the whole Test.
At Centurion, de Villiers knew that a slower surface would bring Ashwin into play. So what does he do? He goes on to reverse sweep the Indian off-break bowler in both innings’ as soon as he walks in. It not only sows the seeds of doubt in Ashwin’s mind but also forces him to change his line and length, effectively bringing de Villiers’ orthodox shots into play. He scored 18 of 20 balls in the second innings from Ashwin and rarely looked perturbed against the spinner. On the other hand, Ashwin was visibly upset by de Villiers’ reverse sweeping and switched to a more leg-sidish line, further aiding de Villiers to score off him.
Tennis has also played a role in de Villiers’ evolution as a batsman. Tennis was his first love as a child and he developed amazing natural reflexes by playing the game.
He spent hours smacking a tennis ball against a wall, ensuring each time that the ball missed his grandpa sitting with a newspaper in the thick of all action. “He never flinched,” de Villiers says.
The switch to cricket came much later when he realized that tennis was too individual for his liking. It perhaps explains why he is such a team-first man. His awareness and insane ability to pick gaps stem from a childhood habit. We have heard multiple stories of how the great West Indian, Shivnarine Chanderpaul, developed his unique stance. The de Villiers story is so much along those lines and it shaped him into one hell of a cricketer.
In his World, there are no bowlers, only balls; no fielders, only gaps. When he tarnishes the red paint of the cricket ball, this supernatural hero wallows and basks in the glory of his own insane ability.
Ed Smith describes the aura of de Villiers in one short paragraph – “Ask cricketers to name the game’s freak, they’ll say AB. When de Villiers walks into a room you sense exactly that. He does not signal this pre-eminence himself. It is written on everyone else.”
While most batsmen are stuck in a ghetto at the age of 33, de Villiers is back after his self-enforced break and middling the bejesus out of cricket balls. The more he bats, the more it appears that cricket needs him more than he needs cricket. When he bats, there is no bludgeoning of the cricket ball, just orthodox, modified shots; pristine, beautiful, elegant and delicate. The brute power and destruction go beneath a veil of the unimaginable evolution of batsmanship. This is AB de Villiers in his truest form, a modern-day harbinger of cricket batting.