After speeding past the umpire, Dale Steyn is about to hit the bowling crease. A little more than 22 yards away, AB de Villiers is steady in his stance, with his feet standing parallel to the stumps behind him. It’s only when the pacer takes off that de Villiers moves. Suddenly, the right leg takes a massive sideways stride and gets planted outside off-stump. As Steyn releases the ball, a crouching de Villiers, with his feet wide apart, looks like a tennis player ready to receive a serve.
A frame-by-frame study of the most-talked about six of Season 7 — the one hit by the RCB batsman on the last ball of Hyderabad’s Steyn’s match-losing 19th over — gives an idea of the skills that go into inventing modern-day strokes. These unconventional hits are as much out-of-the-box as they are out of position. Hits that aren’t just changing the accepted definition of a ‘good ball’ but also cocking a snook at the traditional field settings that have for long been happily married to specific lines-and-lengths.
Example: In case an express pacer vouches to fire a good-length ball outside the off-stump, and keeps his word too, it is safe to have the fine-leg inside the 30-yard circle. Established principles of geometry say that a batsman cannot intentionally send the leather behind square on the leg side. De Villiers, though, has repeatedly done the impossible. And to do just that, he takes a 90 degrees turn.
Back to the ‘pause/play’ of the that fascinating six to explain this turn. Freezing the frame when Steyn is about the release the ball shows that the pacer had a clear view of all three stumps from between de Villiers’s parted legs. At that point, the seemingly out-of-position de Villiers looks helpless. A yorker at the base of middle stump, or even a length ball outside off for that matter, would ensure at least a dot ball, if not a wicket.
In a matter of a split-second, things change. As you press pause and stop the ball around mid-pitch, de Villers is seen kneeling outside off-stump. The swift and slick move pushes his left leg next to the right, giving him the stability needed to hit a range of shots. As was the case on Sunday, he is in a position to subtly nudge the length ball over fine leg. In the past, from this position he has smacked a yorker for six, reverse swept one to third man and even lofted the ball over the bowler’s head. Yes, every time he has been on his knees, squatting outside the off stump.
Many have tried but mostly failed. The pretenders either give away their plan to the bowlers too early or fail to connect the ball with their feet apart. AB’s special skip to the off-stump has a high degree of difficulty.
To regularly pull off any of these outrageous strokes, one needs exceptional hands, legs and reflexes — attributes de Villiers seems to be blessed with. For AB, these hits are more calculated risks than gambles. The kind mortals take while hitting an on-the-up cover drive or an against-the-spin inside-out shot.
(Sandeep is the National Sports Editor, based in New Delhi) firstname.lastname@example.org