De Villiers refines T20 hitting
There are hitters. There are finishers. There are sloggers. And there are, as Brad Hodge says, "cultured sloggers," such as AB de Villiers, who have taken Twenty20 batting to another level. After his latest assault on Ashok Dinda tonight, "surreal slogger" is more like it. It wasn't the fact that de Villiers took 26 runs off the Dinda over. It was the ridiculous regularity with which he kept coming up with different strokes for different deliveries and kept executing them.
Sample these. Very wide ball slog-swept over deep midwicket. Wide ball carted straight over the bowler. Short slower ball smashed flat over long-off. Full delivery reverse-swept to fine third man. Length ball scooped from outside off over short fine leg. Forget Dinda. Last IPL season, de Villiers did the same to Dale Steyn, the highlight being a near-yorker on middle stump lofted over extra cover for six.
It is very well to say that T20 frees the batsman from the bother of having to guard his wicket and in a way, forces him to innovate with the pressing need to score more all the time. While that means a great bowler like Steyn can easily have an off day in the format, it does not explain the almost eerie calm with which de Villiers' scoops a fast bowler over short fine leg.
This is an incredibly difficult shot to execute, even without the fear that you can get out. And there is also the risk of injuring yourself badly. Brendon McCullum did it with success against the extreme pace of Shaun Tait in 2010, and has said he knew he could have had his jaw smashed, but went for it anyway., as he did not think he could have scored in front of square.
For many batsmen, the scoop is an option to break free. Many bend their knees and go across with clear desperation in their eyes, hoping to connect and avoid getting hit. De Villiers tries this shot regularly, and he makes it appear as normal as if he were going for a cover drive. There is absolutely no desperation about him, neither in expression nor in movement.
And then the reverse sweep to the fast bowler. The way he turned Dinda miles clear of short third man, he might as well have been glancing one off his pads past short fine leg. These are no longer innovations for de Villiers, or ploys to unsettle a bowler. They are as normal a part of his arsenal as orthodox cricketing shots, of which he has plenty as well.
Chris Gayle bulldozes attacks with sheer presence and reach, but he has his hitting zones marked out. Kieron Pollard will go hard and straight. Bowlers can attempt to deny these batsmen what they prefer. How does one attempt to control de Villiers, whose range is 360 degrees?
The first time he was involved in a one-over eliminator scenario, against Delhi Daredevils, he and Gayle took singles off the first three balls. De Villiers couldn't connect with the fourth. No problem. He sent the last two over deep midwicket for six.
The absence of the need to guard his wicket would have been of little help at that moment. It is a combination of extraordinary skill, pinpoint execution and unbelievable clarity of mind that enables de Villiers to get away with he does. He has got to be the most nerveless all-round hitter of a cricket ball at the moment.
Abhishek Purohit is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo