Showman like no other

Showman like no other

END OF A GREAT INNINGS: Nicknamed Mr 360, AB de Villiers delighted fans across the world with his electrifying shot-making. REUTERS

There are retirements and then there are retirements like that of AB de Villiers. It’s difficult to recall in the last two decades when a high-profile cricketer generated as much shock and disappointment as de Villiers did by hanging up his boots. While some greats of the game have overstayed their welcome, some others have graciously stepped away. Sachin Tendulkar did leave a lump in everybody’s throat when he called it quits in 2013, but his decision didn’t come even as a surprise. It may have led to outpouring of a sea of emotions but there was no disappointment as such. If anything, it was a melancholic moment of losing something that has been integral to your life for two decades.      

De Villiers’ decision to quit international cricket without as much of a sign just after four days of his IPL stint with Royal Challengers Bangalore came as a bolt from the blue to the entire cricketing world. At 34, the right-hander was closer towards the end of his career than the start but looking at the way he batted and fielded in this IPL and in the Tests prior to that against India and Australia in South Africa, there was little to suggest that his game was diminishing. In fact, he seemed hungrier than before. He may have stuck to the sport’s time-tested adage of “why now than why not”, but de Villiers has left the game poorer by walking away. He has left a vacuum that will be hard to fill. Of course, he will still be available to play franchise leagues across the world, but the international cricket will never be the same again.

That he was a batting genius has hardly been disputed. His range of strokes, his versatility and his temperament were unmatched. He could explode when he wanted to, and he could knuckle down and bat for hours to save a match. The bowling attacks didn’t matter to him and conditions did little to deter him. From Australia to India, he conquered differing bowlers on divergent pitches. His brilliance was also tested against the best in the world in Dale Steyn and he came up trumps. Although it was in the T20 format, given the situations it was a batting show that you can only put it in the realm of fantasy.      

The entertainment and excitement quotient in any sport doubles up when the best in the business take on each other. Muhammad Ali vs Joe Frazier, Rafael Nadal vs Roger Federer, Lin Dan vs Lee Chong Wei, to name a few, have revved up the interest in their particular sport. Even in team games, individual rivalries like that of Cristiano Ronaldo vs Lionel Messi are as deeply stirring as the battle between their respective teams Real Madrid and Barcelona. In cricket, too, there have been many such sub-plots within the main script – Dennis Lillee vs Vivian Richards, Sachin Tendulkar vs Shane Warne, Brian Lara vs Muttiah Muralitharan. In the pre-IPL era we could only see the best of opponents run into each other while they went unchallenged by their own team-mates, especially in the modern era when internationals hardly get any time to play in domestic cricket.

Imagine Virender Sehwag coming up against Anil Kumble or Ricky Ponting facing Glenn McGrath or Kumar Sangakkara trying to tame Muralitharan or Lara trying to conquer Curtly Ambrose. These battles would have been the stuff of dreams. With the onset of IPL, a couple of those clashes were fleetingly possible and one such battle was between AB de Villiers, playing for Royal Challengers Bangalore, and his fellow Protean Dale Steyn of Deccan Changers, the best fast bowler in the world at that moment in 2012 -- the year, de Villiers made his debut for RCB.

With RCB needing 39 off the last three overs, Hyderabad brought Steyn into the attack and his short ball was dispatched over deep midwicket. The next one went past wide long-on, and an attempted yorker was hammered over extra cover for a flat six. De Villiers then scooped one past short fine to collect 23 from that over to send RCB fans into delirium. No one before this had even thought that Steyn could be dismissed in this fashion and that speaks volumes about de Villiers’ genius.     

And if you thought that this was just a one-off occurrence, de Villiers repeated the feat against Steyn two years later under more or less similar circumstances at the same venue. Needing 28 off two overs, you would have backed the bowling side to win with Steyn bowling the penultimate one. De Villiers, however, bossed Steyn again, slamming him for four sixes in the. He had slayed the best in his business not just once but twice. Whoever said lightning doesn’t strike twice in the same place.

Lightning would aptly describe de Villiers – his swift moves in the crease to manufacture shots that inspired awe among his team-mates and instilled fear of God in his rivals; his mercurial presence on the field and his agility behind the wickets whenever he kept wickets; all combined to create the legend of ABD.

When de Villiers ran, jumped at least two metres in the air and plucked Alex Hales’ pull from his outstretched right hand on the edge of deep mid-wicket and then pulled himself back inside the rope to complete the catch during Royal Challengers Bangalore’s match against Sunrisers Hyderabad in Bangaluru last week, commentators ran out of adjectives to describe this gravity-defying act.

Kohli called him Spiderman, some said he himself may not know what he does, and some others exclaimed it just defied laws of physics. And that’s how de Villiers’ will be remembered as – someone who defied the convention and set his own norms in whatever he did. The amount of runs he has amassed in Tests and ODIs are enough to put him alongside all-time greats, but judging de Villiers’ greatness purely on the volume of his runs will be doing injustice to his indescribable talent and the unbridled joy he provided by the manner in which he batted. With due respect to the likes of the immensely talented Kohli and Kane Williamson, who perhaps come close to matching de Villiers in substance and style, the Protean will undoubtedly be regarded as the biggest entertainer of the last decade.