A crack in AB de Villiers' game
There were instances in the early part of AB de Villiers' career where he was continually harried by pace. A Shaun Tait thunderbolt ricocheted off a bottom edge into de Villiers hip during a T20 international at the MCG in 2009, the pain so excruciating that de Villiers fell back towards his stumps to be out hit wicket before writhing on the ground in pain.
Then came his struggles in Tests against Stuart Broad, who has dismissed him 10 times, the most by any bowler in the five-day format. Broad's nagging length around off stump and his ability to move the ball both the ways constantly threatened both of de Villiers' edges. Eight of his 10 dismissals against Broad have been a result of him being beaten on either edge. In between, he dominated almost all other bowlers in all formats, up until 2016.
Cut to April of last year and the seeds are being sown for a new vulnerability of the seemingly impervious de Villiers. Mumbai Indians captain Rohit Sharma asked Krunal Pandya, a tidy left-arm spinner playing his third IPL match, to bowl to Virat Kohli and de Villiers at the Wankhede Stadium. The plan was clear: land the ball on a fuller-than-good length, avoid too much flight and keep his line straight. If there was natural variation from the surface, Krunal had the chance of beating de Villiers on either edge. Krunal, wary of de Villiers' quick feet, dragged back that length to beat his outside edge with one that spun to have him stumped. Strike one.
In the reverse fixture at Chinnaswamy Stadium three weeks later, Krunal came up against de Villiers again, but his modus operandi didn't change: flat, quick, straight. De Villiers had scored four singles off four balls before attempting to put Krunal off that template. Extra bounce and pace resulted in a catch at deep midwicket. Strike two.
Back at the Chinnaswamy Stadium this season, de Villiers was afforded nothing by Krunal - no width on either side, nor was he too slow or too quick. De Villiers' natural instinct batting at No. 3 in T20s is to attack, even against a bowler he hadn't quite figured out. When he tried to dominate, he was reprieved when Jos Buttler dropped a relatively simple catch at deep midwicket. Not too long after, de Villiers set out to hit Krunal over the off side, but was caught at cover. Strike three. At this point, Krunal had bowled 22 balls at de Villiers and conceded 18 runs.
On Monday at the Wankhede, de Villiers got on top of Krunal. He knew he couldn't use his feet with Krunal's quick pace and flat trajectory. So he played around in the crease, shuffling and backing away, to hit 21 runs off 10 balls before top-edging a sweep to short fine leg, again undone by extra bounce. It was the fourth time De Villiers was dismissed by Krunal in four innings, his worst record against a bowler in T20s. Royal Challengers have lost all four games.
It was a contest won by a stubborn, unwavering bowler against a batting superstar. Other bowlers have struggled to improvise against de Villiers, but Krunal hasn't had to because of his flawless execution. De Villiers banked on a subsequent error - in line, length or pace - if he managed to put Krunal off his length. That has been de Villiers' successful process against several accurate bowlers in limited-overs cricket, and it has worked to devastating effect. In a bid to force Krunal into a mistake, de Villiers has tried to go inside-out over cover or heave over midwicket at some point in each of his four dismissals to Krunal.
A longer format allows de Villiers to suss out the consistency of a bowler by looking for other options, but T20 cricket doesn't afford that luxury. De Villiers succeeded for a few balls on Monday, but Krunal, aware of his limitations and de Villiers' intent, backed his own successful method.
|v left-arm orthodox||5||133.33||39.20|
|v other spin types||7||172.28||40.85|
Stalling de Villiers with left-arm spin hasn't been limited to just Mumbai though. In T20Is and the IPL since 2016, de Villiers' strike rate against left-arm spin is just 133.33, compared to his strike rate of 172.28 against other spin.
Prior to IPL 2016, de Villiers had scored just 286 runs off 222 balls against left-arm spin at a strike rate of 128.88, with just eight sixes. Against pace in the same phase, de Villiers hit 74 sixes with a strike rate of 155.33. In all T20Is, de Villiers has scored 222 runs off 195 balls with a strike rate of 113.84 against left-arm spinners, with six dismissals.
De Villiers hasn't been dismissed often against left-arm spin - 11 times in 116 IPL innings - but many teams may finally have their solution of how to stall, or stop, de Villiers when he decides to attack.
Nikhil Kalro is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo