This time next week, it’s likely that the one question that is gnawing at the minds of every single bowler in the India T20 squad, if not hounding them, is where do I bowl to AB de Villiers? It’s inevitable after all. For, they’ll know very well that AB will be coming after them. Not to forget that how they bowl at AB could well be the decisive factor in which way India’s first-ever three-match series in the shortest format pans out. And he won’t be the only batsman capable of changing the game in an instant, or more realistically in the space of a few deliveries, with the Protea batting line-up also including skipper Faf du Plessis, David Miller, JP Duminy and Hashim Amla.
But before the enigmatic South African batting dynamo can get his hands on Bhuvneshwar Kumar & Co, it will be a bunch of young inexperienced bowlers who will have to contend with him when the visitors play their first warm-up match on tour at Delhi’s Palam ground. Spinners Pawan Negi and Yuzvendra Chahal will be part of that mix. Both believe their only way out will be concentrating on their natural routines rather than being sucked into a game of cat and mouse with the right-handed genius. It’s a view that Praveen Kumar, arguably the wiliest of all Indian pacers, seconds while insisting that the best way to deal with de Villiers was to not try and demystify his unrelenting trickery and instead nullify it with the unglamorous trait of discipline.
“AB is expecting you to bowl six different deliveries at him. He is waiting for you to experiment with your lines and lengths because he then can hit you anywhere he pleases. I have always believed in bowling good length to him. Six balls on the same spot with unwavering accuracy. You cannot try to beat him at his own game,” says Kumar.
“He wants you to get overawed, but you cannot afford to let him dictate your mindset,” the 29-year-old adds.
With de Villiers it’s not just his 360 degree hitting range that pushes bowlers into panic-mode. It’s also his penchant to move around in his crease constantly, like he’s on a ballet floor, that puts them off. According to Kumar, focusing on a fixed length comes in handy in terms of thwarting the distraction at the other end of the pitch.
“It’s important that you are not looking at what he’s doing at the crease. He will move around, jump at you and try to get into your mind. But your job is to simply look at that spot where you want to pitch the ball. Ideally, three-quarter length on fourth stump and angling in towards his stumps,” he explains.
“You need to have a Plan B of course, but more often than not you are better off executing Plan A, regardless of how he’s trying to put you off,” adds Kumar.
Neither Kumar nor the two spinners though are in any illusion that regardless of what plan they have in mind, de Villiers might still get the better of them in T20 cricket. But the secret in Kumar’s opinion is to not make it an ego issue and instead keep your mind on the job.
“I just have to bowl in good areas. If he hits a six from a good area that is his class but if he manages to scoop it, then it is our benefit,” says Negi, who had an impressive season with CSK in IPL 8 and like Kumar has been on the receiving end of a de Villiers’ onslaught.
Chahal on the other hand though is lucky enough to be playing for the same side as de Villiers in the IPL, and can be content with only challenging the South African maestro in the nets. But the diminutive leggie insists on being ready for the face-off with his Royal Challengers Bangalore teammate at Palam.
“Obviously he is a legend and is capable of hitting 360 degrees, so I will stick to my strengths rather than thinking what his strength area is. Variation is my strength and will bowl googlies, straighter ones alongside my stock deliveries,” says Chahal.
While de Villiers is a dangerous proposition during any part of a T20 innings, it’s really in the death that he comes into his own. Kumar knows it. The veteran seamer still believes the yorker is the best way out even to someone whose flubber-like hands help him even hit the block-hole deliveries to the fence.
“But the secret is in attacking his stumps. I do not believe in bowling wide yorkers to AB. You cannot contain him. You have to get him out, and the only way to do that is by bowling straight. At the most you could mix up your pace but a perfect yorker can get even a batsman of his class out,” says Kumar.
Setting fields is another crucial element. But it’s best to not get too cheeky with your field placements either, feels Kumar. “Don’t try to double-bluff him. If you are setting a field for a ball, focus on executing that very delivery to the best of your ability,” he says.
So the answer it seems is that once you have realized as a bowler that you can’t outfly AB, the safest option you’re left with is probably to stay grounded. But you still reckon that every Indian bowler who faces up to him will be living on a prayer.