Last month, I was at the Wanderers Cricket Ground in Johannesburg. It was the third ODI between South Africa and Sri Lanka – and though I had gone to soak in the international experience, the match itself turned out to be quite a damp squid (remember the “bees halt play” incident? Yes, that one).
For imprisoned Indian spectators who are used to being treated like cattle at local stadiums, it was a breath of fresh air. You’re allowed onto the ground (anywhere but the pitch) in the break between innings, where children are allowed to roll and play on the turf, adults are allowed to visualize their long-lost dreams in the middle, a carnival-type atmosphere prevails and everyone is allowed to carry their mugs of beer with them.
But what actually eventually caught my attention was the match itself. South Africa easily chased down 180-odd in the match, with captain AB de Villiers – who had recently announced his ‘break’ from Test cricket – at the crease after an unbeaten run-a-ball 60. It may sound exciting on paper to watch the most freakishly talented batsman in the world score a half-century on a home ground – but to watch it was a little underwhelming. In fact, he seemed to consciously be playing like a mortal, as if to prove he belonged to the human race with little plods and no aerial shots, to be a ‘responsible’ finisher playing at no. 4 or 5 in the batting order.
I concluded that AB, a batsman who can do anything with that bat in his hand, had decided to become AB Dhoni – that is, forsake natural aggression in order to become the ‘older statesman’ of a young side, and become more of a calm accumulator at this advanced stage of a long career. In both cases, the batsmen look like they’re making a conscious effort; their struggle to inherit the role they have stubbornly made up in their heads shows. They don’t look at ease, insisting on adapting to a new, previously alien role. Even M.S. Dhoni, towards the end of his career as captain, had faded so much into his own perception of his reputation as a finisher that he had forgotten why he was Dhoni to begin with. The responsibility had numbed his instincts, and the same seems to have been happening with AB – a man of considerably more flair and talent than others.
I thought it was a one-off because it was a weak team and a low score to achieve. No need for fireworks? It would have been a wise decision to entertain the crowd – but with Quinton de Kock, Hashim Amla and David Miller in the same line-up, perhaps AB had decided to be the anchor. Yes, read that again – the anchor. He is a busy batsman, so even his ‘slower’ innings have that restlessness about it; the singles and twos never stop.
But then I looked at the stats.
AB has batted at four in ODI cricket for the majority of his career. Much like in Dhoni’s case, there have been debates about how someone like him needs to bat at three in order to get as many overs as possible. But AB has often come in the 38th over and changed the game far more than he does if he comes in during the 9th over – which is when he doesn’t quite like pacing his innings for 40 overs. When he has only one option – to accelerate and destroy – he has been far more effective.
But whereas he scored three centuries against India in their 3-2 victory in India in 2015, he has scored only one century after that – back in February 2016, more than a year ago. That was his last ODI century, and he has played 15 matches since then. In those 15 innings, he has four fifties, four not outs, and seven scores between 20 and 40. While he has batted at four, below Faf du Plessis, for 13 of these 15 innings, the last two have been particularly worrying in their ongoing series in New Zealand. Though they are leading the series, AB dropped himself to no. 5 in the batting order for the second and fourth match in Christchurch and Hamilton, below JP Duminy.
In the second match, he wanted to anchor the chase, and almost did, but fell short with 80-odd; chasing hasn’t exactly been his strong suit, in stark contrast to Virat Kohli. In the ongoing game, he again came at five to ‘finish’ off the innings in the last six overs with a flurry, finishing on an unbeaten 72 off 59 balls. While that may seem impressive, most of his runs came in the last three overs – before which he was on a Dhoni-ish 35 off 40-odd balls. His acceleration skewed those figures, and his determination to stay not out towards the end and still smash the bowling resulted in yet another fifty that SHOULD have been a century. He didn’t take as much strike as he would have liked – with guys like Faf and Pretorius scoring at a strike rate of 65.
AB has always been a fifty player, given his position in the order, and given the top form of Amla and de Kock in the last few years. One doesn’t expect many big centuries – despite him holding the record for the fastest-ever 150 and 24 ODI centuries, as well as the quickest to reach 9000 runs, which he achieved last week.
But the manner of his batting in the last six months has indicated that he is batting towards a World Cup. Or any ICC tournament in general. With the Champions Trophy coming up in June, and the World Cup in 2019, AB is trying to prolong the functionality of his contributions, and ‘lead’ in every way till South Africa finally win an elusive world title.
He has taken a sabbatical from Test cricket after dropping the captaincy, and reminds fans of his true abilities only when he plays the Indian T20 league every year for two months as part of the Royal Challengers Bangalore. His explosions at the Chinnaswamy are almost as legendary as Chris Gayle’s and Virat Kohli’s, but for the rest of the year he retreats into his Proteas shell, letting himself bald and get wrinkled with the stress of carrying the hopes of a nation.
He has stopped trying to express himself, and is now concentrating on expressing the team – a decision on which the jury will always be out, as it was on Dhoni for much of his latter career. Perhaps the real AB will never quite stand up again.
Scores since Feb 2016:
31, 22, 39, 27, DNB, 2, 30*, 3, 60*, 64, 14, 37*, 45, 85, 72*