Amid chaos, de Villiers finds batting zen
It took a lot to ascertain a very important truth. Royal Challengers Bangalore were made to look like wimps. Gujarat Lions had to endure giddying amounts of false hope. Virat Kohli was forced to go through so many emotions that screen grabs of his face should be supplied to young actors.
But finally, there is proof that cricket is in AB de Villiers' DNA. If not that, then the events at the M Chinnaswamy Stadium on Tuesday night at least emphasise the fact that there is no one better than him at risk management during a batting innings.
He took a score of 29 for 5, touched it up and made it match-winning, almost like a fairy godmother turning the ugly duckling into a beautiful swan. Real life, however, is not often as obliging. The pitch picked Tuesday to mutiny against the batsmen. It was slow and offered uneven bounce. De Villiers was aware of this. So was Kohli. And they had got together to devise a counter.
"It's a funny thing," de Villiers said afterwards. "Virat and I actually spoke about it before our batting innings. He was really full of energy, giving a lot of information out. He came and sat at my place and was talking really energetically and I told him, 'Virat, you know I just go naturally about it.' He's a thinker. I'm not a big thinker."
That can't be true. Then again, de Villiers is no liar. So is it possible that he defies scoreboard pressure - 29 for 5 became 68 for 6 in the 10th over after a rough lbw decision to his partner Stuart Binny - and situational pressure - Binny was the last specialist batsman and Royal Challengers were 91 runs off target - because he has been built to?
"I follow my instincts," de Villiers said. "I try and watch the ball closely. I've played the game for many years now and I know my talent will take over if I just watch the ball and enjoy myself out there."
One of the best ways for a sportsman to enjoy himself is to win. And de Villiers is obsessed with winning. The only way that was going to happen in Bangalore was if he shepherded the chase all the way through. In other words, the risk of losing him at any point - even with one run needed - was too high.
So de Villiers dialled down his strokeplay. Pushes down the ground with a straight bat. Glides that made use of the bowler's pace. Short of letting a bad ball go unpunished, he focused entirely on safeguarding his wicket. He scored 50 of his 79 runs in boundaries. Only one of them was a reverse sweep.
There were other matters he had to be mindful of - rain in the air and Dhawal Kulkarni overpowering every batsman in his path so effortlessly that it seemed like he had gone out celebrating on the eve of the match, bumped into Asterix and stolen his magic potion. Kohli had been slapped with his first duck in almost two years of competitive cricket. Chris Gayle escorted the ball onto his stumps. KL Rahul was knocked out by an unplayable delivery. De Villiers was key.
"I didn't think it was possible to win from there when I started batting and when we were five or six down," de Villiers told iplt20.com. "I thought 'Oh, we are in trouble,' and it was a big mountain to climb from there on. I tried to break it down into small targets. I wanted to focus on each ball and enjoy it even though we were down and out."
And so de Villiers absorbed the early barrage for Royal Challengers like a boxer willfully taking blows until he could spot an opening for the right hook. That came in the 11th over, when he got the strike for a free-hit against uncapped left-arm spinner Shadab Jakati. Six.
The only way a batsman can be dismissed off a free-hit is via a run-out. And this one was a length ball outside the off stump, giving de Villiers ample room for a big old golf swing. In summation, there was absolutely no risk in depositing that ball straight down the ground. Royal Challengers needed 80 off the remaining 56 balls and de Villiers had just switched on.
And now the game changes. Clear risks are suddenly not risks at all. Like shovel-sweeping against Jakati's turn over the square-leg boundary, even with a fielder there. All de Villiers had to do was get outside the line of the ball and let those powerful forearms, strengthened from his years of playing hockey, take over. Or reverse-sweeping Praveen Kumar's pace from outside leg. This was 42 balls into his innings. And this was with 26 needed off 20 balls, with four wickets in hand. This was reward for all that sober batting earlier. This was a first sip of scotch.
The last shot he played was a gentle push to long-on because that was what was needed. That is all de Villiers ever does on a cricket field.
"I honestly don't give a rat's…" his tired body and mind almost slipped up at the post-match press conference, but then he smiled and said, "damn about any stat. I don't care about hundreds, fifties, averages. Tonight was special for me. To cross the line for the team, to have an impact on winning the game - that's why I play this game."
Alagappan Muthu is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo