Richard Levi wants to master Indian conditions
When Richard Levi's name was called out at the IPL auction in February, there was silence. Despite a base price of just $50,000, there were no takers for the 24-year-old South African. But all that changed a little over two weeks later, after Levi bludgeoned his way into the record books for South Africa against New Zealand in Hamilton. He hit 13 sixes - the most ever in a Twenty20 innings - on his way to a hundred from 45 balls, also a record for men's cricket. He would finish with an unbeaten 117 from 51 balls in just his second international innings. It was an assault so brutal that South Africa's run-rate rarely dropped below 10 after the first over.
Levi said he wasn't disappointed at not being picked in the auction because he only had "one or two good seasons of Twenty20". In fact, he was surprised he made it to the final auction list at all. Following his assault on the hapless New Zealand bowlers though, it was no surprise that he became a hot commodity, with Mumbai Indians and Pune Warriors, the two teams with vacant spots in their squad, chasing his signature. In the end, he opted for Mumbai Indians and the chance to open the batting with Sachin Tendulkar.
"I think it is going to be amazing," Levi told ESPNcricinfo. "They [the crowd] won't be cheering for me, they will be cheering for their 'little master', but I think it's going to be amazing ... I think the first time I do it, it could be a bit of a shock. I might have big eyes and that sort of stuff but it is going to be amazing to walk out and see a crowd that passionate and wanting you to do well."
Mumbai Indians have struggled to find an opening partner for Tendulkar in the IPL, with a number of contenders being rotated in and out of the side over the past four years. The potential impact of a destructive opener was plain to see in 2011, when Chris Gayle almost single-handedly turned Royal Challengers Bangalore's season around and marched them into the finals. It was one of Gayle's specials in the second play-off game that knocked Mumbai out of the tournament as well.
Levi's hundred drew comparisons to Gayle and he is confident he can be the attacking opener his team needs. The key, he said, will be how fast he can adapt to playing in Indian conditions, though he already has an edge in that regard, having played in last year's Champions League Twenty20 with the Cape Cobras. That event taught Levi to be more patient on wickets that are slower than the ones in South Africa and where the ball doesn't bounce as much. Leaning how to train in hot conditions and managing his body for the rigours of the seven-week tournament will also be crucial to his chances of succeeding in the IPL.
"I spoke to a couple of guys [in the South African team] and they said if you can master [Indian] conditions, you can play anywhere in the world."
Levi has always had the ability to hit the ball a long way and said none of his coaches through the years have ever tried to change the way he played. "In the longer format of the game you are told 'don't be stupid' and that sort of stuff," he said. "In Twenty20 and the one-day game, you can get away with it. But in general, it has just been you have got to where you are playing the way you have. You need to refine it, but don't lose it."
He credits his Cobras coach Richard Pybus in particular with helping him develop a clearer understanding of his strengths and weakness, while his Cobras team-mate Owais Shah has been another positive influence on his development as batsman. As a result, Levi went from averaging below 30 in the 2009-10 season in first-class cricket to over 50 in 2010-11. His List A average in 2011-12 was 49.44.
"You are not going to score a 100 over 40 balls very time in T20 cricket," Levi said. "The trick is to keep everything as simple as possible and play to your strengths and just watch the ball."
Anybody who watched Levi that day in Hamilton would have left with indelible memories of an astonishing innings. Yet the man himself remembers little from the innings that put him on the international map and led to high-profile IPL contract. There are memories of his captain, AB de Villiers, standing at the other end and clapping and he remembers getting to personal milestones, but not much else.
"I watched the highlights once or twice and I still don't believe some of the shots I played," Levi said. "They were a bit messy and a bit freakish at times. Luckily, they came off on that day and I kept going and the ball kept landing over the ropes."
If he can keep sending the ball over the ropes in the IPL, Mumbai Indians aren't going to mind if he can't remember doing so.
Tariq Engineer is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo