Is de Villiers too good for his team?

Narayanan Subrahmanian

AB de Villiers produced two mesmerising moments of fielding at the MCG on Sunday. First, he ran out Rohit Sharma who had set off for a run from the non-strikers end after a misfield by JP Duminy at covers. Shikhar Dhawan sent Rohit back. By the time, he made the despairing dive, de Villiers had come in from mid-off, picked up the ball and released it. He had only one stump to aim at, from where he was throwing. If the action was stopped at that moment and a question was posed to a mathematician with expertise on probability theory, on whether de Villiers would hit or not, he would have answered no. He would have come up with a statistic too, “Of all the 32,346 throws made from a position when a fielder has only one stump to aim at in International cricket, only 1423 have hit the target, a meagre 4.39 per cent.”

But this is de Villiers; the mathematician cares about numbers only, not personalities. If the same mathematician were to be asked whether anyone would hit a century in a 50 over match after coming in to bat in the 39th over of the innings, before this January, he would have said, “No chance, it has never happened before.” But de Villiers with his 31-ball-hundred at the Wanderers against West Indies showed that there is always a first.

Back to the action, Rohit Sharma’s bat slipped from his hand, de Villiers did not miss the stumps and India lost their first wicket. Later in the Indian innings, Ravindra Jadeja, after playing a ball to mid off, took on de Villiers’s arm. This time, he had all three stumps to aim at. No mathematician was required; the probability of Jadeja surviving was zero.  ABD is unreal, he is not human, he could hit sixes at will, score hundreds in minutes, throw down stumps eyes shut. He is from some other planet. He would chase down the target of 308 single-handedly. India were coming off the back of a spirited bowling performance against Pakistan. But everyone knew this would be different. South Africa had Hashim Amla, Faf du Plessis and de Villiers himself. The chase had the possibility of turning into a cakewalk if these batsmen got their eye in.

Indian seamers were disciplined like they were against Pakistan.  Soon, they were rewarded. de Cock and Amla were dismissed within the first 11 overs. People said, “The game starts now.” The half-man, half-machine ABD walked out to the middle to join du Plessis.  The singles and doubles started to come by far more frequently. He did not go for any big shots early on. Then in the 14th over, de Villiers pulled Mohit Sharma imperiously through mid wicket. The next ball, he premeditated and came down the track. But as with any de Villiers improvisations, he waited till the last moment, let the ball carve out and picked his spot through covers for a four.

MS Dhoni, from behind the wicket, knew this could go horribly wrong for his bowlers. Dhoni, the man who believes in ‘processes’, asked his bowlers to keep hitting the right areas and waited for something to happen. In test matches, his wait goes on for days, sometimes. But in coloured clothing, more often than not, things fall in place for him. It happened here too. Seven overs on, de Villiers cut Jadeja through point; he decided that there was a run on the throw from the deep. He set out for the second run; there was no confusion, no stop-start. He believed in his strong leg muscles and took for granted the frailty of that of the Indian fielder’s arm from the deep. But Mohit Sharma produced a bullet throw straight to Dhoni’s gloves, right next to the stumps, and he did the rest. de Villiers was found short of his crease and South Africa lost their captain, and their game-plan. After that,  Duminy played a reverse sweep and spooned a catch to Raina at slip. David Miller took on Umesh Yadav and was run out by a comfortable margin. South Africa imploded. They lost their last seven wickets for 44 runs.

After that,  Duminy played a reverse sweep and spooned a catch to Raina at slip. David Miller took on Umesh Yadav and was run out by a comfortable margin. South Africa imploded. They lost their last seven wickets for 44 runs. It was not the first time that the run out of de Villiers induced a panic among the South Africans during a chase. In the 2011 World Cup quarter-final against New Zealand at Mirpur, South Africa, chasing a target of 222, were bundled out for 172. That time also de Villiers was run out in mix up with du Plessis. His dismissal was part of a batting collapse that saw them losing the last seven wickets for 51 runs.

For all de Villiers’s bravado and unnatural feats, sometimes it feels that the South African team is beginning to play under the shadow of his genius. It raises a question. Are South Africa as good as so many people think?  Against India, they fielded five bowlers and batted with a tail end that started at number 7. Compare this to the line-up of hosts Australia. They bat deep with Mitchell Johnson coming in at 9. Leading upto the World Cup, Australia had comprehensively beaten South Africa in a bilateral series 4-1. de Villiers was not willing to accept the fact they were outplayed as he said that South Africa were a better unit than Australia irrespective of the result. South Africa are not that fearsome as they were considered prior to the tournament. It becomes even more evident considering the fact that they play most of their matches in Australia where the tracks for this World Cup have been absolute belters so far, in a way neutralising their pace attack. Going by the evidence of the first two matches, Imran Tahir is their best bet in these conditions, a leg spinner inducing mistakes and getting people caught at deep. 

This is not for a single moment written out of any disrespect towards South Africa or their captain.  AB de Villiers is the most versatile batsman in the world, by far. South Africa may still go on to win the World Cup, but it would for sure take a lot more than a supremely talented batsmen taking the mickey out of the opposition. de Villiers might be pushed while going for a risky second run again by another Mohit Sharma along the way. The rest of the team has to come together and get their captain’s back then. If that happens, South Africa could lift the trophy on March 29 at the same MCG. The mathematician might also agree as the law of averages catches up and makes it impossible for them to miss out again.

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