Not since Sachiiin-Sachiiin has an exhortation of that decibel rent the Indian air. The historically partisan desi crowds are extending that hysterical love, ungrudgingly, to yet another adored batsman, South African AB de Villiers. Bharat Sundaresan & Devendra Pandey tell the story of the man that the whole of India — his young IPL team-mates, the flag-waving Indian fans and even Rahul Dravid’s sons — can’t get enough of.
IT was IPL time, and the Royal Challengers Bangalore had signed up a new wonder-kid they all referred to as Panda owing to his uncanny physical resemblance to Po —of Kung Fu Panda fame — and his equally voracious appetite. And this Panda too had identified his own Master Shifu, who he couldn’t get enough of. He would follow him everywhere.
Their first meeting transpired, of all places, inside a toilet. But it wasn’t all by chance. Sarfaraz Khan had tried to muster up enough courage to approach AB de Villiers for quite a few days. But the youngster finally took his chance when he found his idol ‘all alone’ in the toilet.
From that point on, wherever AB went, there was Sarfaraz waiting for him with starry-eyes and a question. It was always based on the same theme. One day it was, “How do you play the pull shot?” the next, “What about the scoop shot?” The South African never shied away from indulging the Indian teenager’s childish curiosity. And then one day, AB had had enough.
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“How old are you Panda?” he asked. “17” replied Sarfaraz. “17? You have plenty of time to learn everything. At your age, I was nobody and nobody knew me,” said AB.
AB was asking his very young team-mate to take it easy. Sarfaraz did have a lot of time on his hands. The legend of AB de Villiers wasn’t built in a day.
Six months later, we’re back in Bangalore. It’s de Villiers’ 100th Test. Sarfaraz is away in Kanpur playing Ranji Trophy. But there are hundreds of other impressionable youngsters like him who have heavily populated the Chinnaswamy Stadium.
South Africa are batting, and they have lost two early wickets. It’s Hashim Amla’s turn now to walk out. But the Chinnaswamy faithful can’t hold back their excitement. The chants of “A Bee Dee” “A Bee Dee” echo across the venue just like they have wherever South Africa have played in the last two months. Amla jogs out, the chants die out only much later.
Two years ago, Jacques Kallis played his final Test in front of a half-empty Kingsmead stadium in Durban. Here, 22,000 and more have turned up to see AB bat in his 100th. His family is in the stands.
Wife Danielle has the third generation AB de Villiers in her hands – the father too is named Abraham de Villiers – while the parents stand in the row in front of her. They seem overawed by the crowd reaction when their ward does finally enter the arena.
“I thought they would have mourned his dismissal,” AB senior jokes with the media before bursting into laughter. Virat Kohli is there to welcome his RCB teammate with a handshake and pats AB on the back as he strides off after a 105-ball 85.
WHY is India – the young, the old and Virat Kohli – so obsessed with ABD? Why are we cheering for the man who’s hurt our team the most and with no remorse?
The 31-year-old is by no means the first global star to capture the collective cricket consciousness of India. Idol-worship is a cultural trait that most Indians grow up with. Long before de Villiers came on to the stage, India was emulating other cricketing demi-gods in its backyard.
In the 80s everyone was attempting their own version of the Viv Richards swagger to the middle . Awe was the over-riding factor in that relationship, and it kind of alienated the gully cricketer from the genius.
AB doesn’t have the physical presence of a Richards or a Chris Gayle either. However, the magic that he creates with the bat is done with an air of nonchalance. There is no charismatic swagger or any gung-ho machismo involved.
No wonder everybody fancies themselves to jump across their stumps and slog-sweep a fast bowler, or lap-sweep him from in front of your throat or even follow him to the toilet, like young Sarfaraz.
Rahul Dravid certainly knows a thing or two about having a billion Indians obsess over him. He isn’t surprised by the copious adulation that the South African receives in India.
“If you can bat like that you are going to be popular,” says Rahul Dravid with a smile. He also doesn’t have to go too far to see the impact AB has had on budding cricketers countrywide. “I see my sons playing, and they are always trying to play the shots AB does. Like all young players, they try and copy him but soon realize that it is not that easy to do,” he adds.
It’s not just the junior Dravids or Sarfaraz, but more and more kids around the country are realizing that the AB way isn’t always the safest way. Take Mahipal Lamror, an U-19 batsman from Rajasthan for example. A few days after he had seen AB smash the now fastest ODI century of all time-off 31 balls against West Indies while wearing pink – the youngster was playing a Cooch Behar Trophy quarterfinal against Delhi. He had got his eye in with 32 but then on came a leg-spinner.
“Phir kya, mein socha ab De Villiers shot dikhata hoon use. (Let me show him an AB shot). I went to hit over the covers but ball gripped and rose from a length and I was out caught. It was a reality check for me. Any batsman my age will be tempted to try it once having watched AB in the IPL but I have stopped playing the scoop shot now. It’s dangerous and needs lots of practice,” says Lamror.
Unlike Lamror and hordes of others his age who have to be content with watching AB and his genius on TV, Sarfaraz has had the opportunity to not just pick his brains but also bat alongside him in the grand stage of the IPL. He’s used this proximity with his idol to decipher that there’s a lot of thought that goes behind every shot he plays. And also how the AB style is built around self-confidence and a unique knack of picking what the bowler is going to dish out at him.
After having broken the ice with their first encounter — when Sarfaraz found him ‘alone in the toilet’ — the two, he recalls went on to speak about the pull-shot.
“He said it doesn’t matter where the ball goes but you have to take it at chest height. For that, you have to jump a bit at the last moment and get in line with the ball. A lot of batsmen do play the pull off the front-foot but their heads drop and you could top-edge the ball. By connecting with the ball at chest-height, you connect it well and also keep it down always. The secret is also to not hit it too hard, like it might come through on TV. He also said he just taps the ball, uses its pace to generate shot speed,” he says.
Sarfaraz though is quick to also remind you about that one time AB was impressed by a shot being played at the other end. It was a scoop shot that the youngster had played off Kings XI Punjab seamer Anureet Singh in an IPL match.
“He liked my back-leg shuffle. Usually batsmen take their bat forward and connect with it, but I make last minute changes. I pull my bat back when the ball arrives to connect it better,” says Sarfaraz.
“He’s changed the way ODIs and T20s are played,” says Dravid, “It’s impossible to bowl at him especially in the death. His range of shots and the consistency with which he pulls them off is phenomenal. He is virtually hitting you everywhere. You can’t bowl short to him, you can’t bowl a wide yorker to him. Other than nailing a perfect yorker, there is probably very little you can do.”
STILLNESS BEFORE THE STORM
AB’s greatest strength is his 360 degree radar and his ability to bully bowlers by pre-empting their strategy. It is this strength that makes him an impossible proposition at times to control in the shorter formats. His strategy isn’t too different in Tests either like he showed on a difficult pitch in Mohali. When there was a ball to be hit or whenever he thought he could capitalize on a situation, AB just went through with it. Match situations and pitch conditions always seem incidental.
What Sarfaraz can’t get over is that AB doesn’t even practice the reverse-sweeps or scoop shots in the nets. But still manages to produce them just when he wants to during a match.
“He bats only normally in the nets. No fancy shots. But once it’s game time he is fully charged-up. We joke that maybe there’s a charger in his room that he connects himself to before a match. He always knows where the bowler is going to bowl. He can play five shots to one ball. For everyone else the back-foot drive is played by getting to the line of the ball. AB does it after exposing the stumps. It all looks so easy,” he reveals.
According to Dravid, it’s his stillness at the crease that allows him to put the bowlers off.
“He is incredibly still at the crease and even if he moves he gets in really good positions. And obviously has great hand-eye co-ordination. He can probably pick up line and length quickly than lot of people right now,” he says.
AB’s reluctance to acknowledge his prodigious talent only adds to his mystique. He presently ranks as the No.1 batsman in both Tests and ODIs. Few batsmen have achieved it. Yet it’s only recently that AB has begun receiving the kind of attention that he deserves, not only from the crowds in India but also from the so-called experts worldwide.
He averages 52.14 in Tests and 54.21 in ODIs. He hasn’t averaged less than 50 in ODIs since 2008. In that period he’s scored well over run-a-ball and this year alone he has smashed 58 sixes in 20 ODIs.
The AB aura is only growing. At times it’s difficult to imagine what more he can achieve, scary if you are an opposition.
“That innings against New Zealand in the World Cup semi-final before the rains came was incredible. It was a difficult pitch but he was scoring at such a rate. It looked like he was playing a different match,” says Dravid. It’s a commonly heard truism when AB is at the crease. That he’s playing a game that’s different to everyone else on the field.
MANY FORMS OF DIVINITY
For some in the South African dressing-room he’s Superman, for CSK fans he’s Vishnu Perumal —the man who can play shots while lying down like the Hindu God — for others he’s just AB de Villiers the man who gravity forgot. The man who’s rewritten cricket physics, the Einstein of batting.
But if only he would buy into the fanfare around him. While the whole of Bangalore and everyone around him was going gaga over his 100th Test, the man himself was put off by it. Or so it seemed. Two nights prior to the Test, South Africa Tourism had organized a gala dinner to commemorate AB but he confessed that he wasn’t too happy about it.
BRILLIANCE IN SIMPLICITY
It’s not just his batting that has left Sarfaraz amazed though. In an era, where wine-glass figures and chiselled bodies are in vogue around the cricket world, AB isn’t one for going to the gym. He still remains one of the deadliest fielders in the world, with his feline-like agility and amazing athleticism that helped him master many a sport in his youth. That’s not just it, however.
“He enjoys his food and enjoys his cricket. Gayle will do gym on the eve of the game and go for a sauna. But never AB. I don’t know why but he told me once that he doesn’t eat breakfast either, especially if it’s a night game. He will call for lunch sharp at 1 pm and then have something light post-game,” says Sarfaraz. And then the child – and maybe also the Panda – in him come through as he whispers, “Maybe it’s some kind of a special diet.”
But like with all things AB, we might never know. Maybe the most important code in trying to demystify AB lies in his greatest strength, the simplicity of thought. And probably it’s the inability of most others to replicate that clarity which makes decoding him such a complex task.
Regardless, we’ll still sit with our jaws gaping in amazement the next time he sits and paddles a fast bowler over long – leg before smashing the next ball pitched on the same spot over extra cover. Thousands will still fill up cricket stadiums in India and scream, “A Bee Dee, A Bee Dee” even as he’s smashing their own bowlers to bits.
Come the next IPL, Panda will still be waiting for him, with another query, with another quip. Sarfaraz will be a year older. AB will still feel he’s got time. The legend of AB de Villiers wasn’t built in a day.
As a bowler you cannot bowl length to AB anywhere from outside-off to near his stumps, for he will bend down on one knee and slog-sweep you over the ropes anywhere in the region between wide long-on to the region behind the wicket-keeper. His greatest strength of course comes from his stillness at the crease. You never know where he’s targeting you till the time the ball has left your hand. And he always seems to know where the fielder is.
As a bowler you cannot try the yorker on AB’s stumps and get it wrong, for he will bend down on one knee and sweep you to fine-leg, even if it means exposing his stumps. The timing of his bat coming down is crucial, and he never misses. Or even worse, he’ll turn his bat over the other side and reverse sweep you for four to third-man, yes even if the ball pitched full and on middle-stump.
As a bowler you cannot just bowl back of a length on off-stump and feel safe, for he will turn his bat over at the last minute and swat you with almost the back of the bat past third-man. Captains can never risk keeping the fine-leg in or leave any boundary unguarded on the leg-side when AB is in. So the third-man region is always in danger And a ball that he reverse-swats is also one that he can pull over deep square-leg.