March 31, 2016

Hot for club, not for country

Certain multi-format players have surprisingly underachieved in T20Is. It's because they haven't played enough of such matches to develop a rhythm

Opener/middle-order accumulator/finisher: what exactly is AB de Villiers' role in the South Africa XI? © Getty Images

Lionel Messi is not merely the greatest footballer of his generation but perhaps the greatest that there has ever been. Balletic when dribbling the ball, he marries agility with a knack for the killer pass and is remorseless when handed a goal-scoring opportunity. And yet, his record for Argentina has been comparatively underwhelming. He scores 0.86 goals a game for Barcelona but only 0.46 a game for Argentina, and has never been victorious in a World Cup or Copa América.

When discussing AB de Villiers recently, Harsha Bhogle likened him to Messi. It was only half a compliment. For in T20 cricket, de Villiers' career is panning out like Messi's: outstanding in domestic matches but underwhelming on the international stage.

"AB de Villiers: wonder of the world" read a sign in the crowd during South Africa's game with Sri Lanka this week, accompanied by a picture of de Villiers dressed as Superman. So it has often seemed in the IPL, where de Villiers averages 36.70, at a strike rate of 144.73.

But de Villiers averages only 23.58, with a strike rate of 131.91, for South Africa: hardly Superman numbers. Little wonder that South Africa have yet to reach the World T20 final in six attempts.

Paradoxically for a 32-year-old international captain, inexperience is part of de Villiers' problem. He has played 71 T20Is, but that only amounts to seven a year. And he has only played in 41 matches outside the World T20: a puny four games a year to try and work out his best role. Whereas the norm for de Villiers in red-ball cricket or the 50-over game is playing for his country - 106 of his 132 first-class games have been Tests and 200 of his 232 List A games have been ODIs - in T20s it is the exception, and almost two-thirds of his matches in the format have been domestic games.

After the 2015 IPL, David Warner played two T20 matches in 292 days © IDI/Getty Images

After the last WT20, de Villiers went 15 months until his next T20I, being denied the intensive period of concentrating on T20 cricket and the role within a side he is afforded during the IPL. For batsmen, the lack of T20Is means "cohesion becomes an issue - batting partnerships and running between the wickets, knowing when your batting partner is going to 'go'," says Trent Woodhill, batting and fielding coach for Royal Challengers Bangalore.

In T20, de Villiers is a victim of his own gifts. "I haven't really found a rhythm yet in T20 cricket," he said in 2013, seven years into his T20I career. "I'm still finding my way… exactly where I'm going to bat, whether I'm a finisher, in the middle order or in the top three, maybe."

Is he an opener, a middle-order accumulator or a finisher with only sixes on his mind? De Villiers has spent his entire T20I career oscillating between all three. A decade into his South Africa T20 career, he has never batted more than six matches in the same position. Before the tournament, Faf du Plessis declared: "We decided on AB at the top a while ago, and to change that would be a sign of panic." Two games after a 29-ball 71 opening against England, de Villiers was shuffled down the order; in his last five games alone, he has opened, and batted at three, four and five.

South Africa have given ample thought to trying to maximise de Villiers' effectiveness. Yet in the process they have failed to ensure he, their outstanding batsman, bats in the top three. After their exit from the 2014 World T20, head coach Russell Domingo justified the tactic of holding de Villiers back - he batted at five in the semi-final defeat to India, and did not come in until the end of the 14th over - because the data showed he was more effective coming in after the tenth over. But the sample size in T20 cricket, especially internationals, is so small that such numbers should be used with care. Where Domingo said de Villiers thrived coming in late in an innings, he was referring to nine innings played over eight years.

One case of a player floundering in international T20Is is even more perplexing than that of de Villiers. When he was selected to play South Africa in a T20I in 2009, David Warner became the first man since 1877 to debut for Australia before playing first-class cricket. He is a poster boy for the notion that modern players can emerge in T20 cricket and then thrive in Tests too.

There has just been one snag: as his Test form has soared, so Warner's returns in T20I cricket have plummeted. A lack of matches is at the heart of his problem: while excelling in 50-over cricket and Tests, Warner played just six T20Is between the 2014 and 2016 WT20 tournaments, and only had three games to get accustomed to his new role in the middle order. Thirty-eight runs in four innings in India were the result.

Grant Elliott has no IPL contract, but he has been very effective for New Zealand with his all-round skills © Getty Images/ICC

Multi-format players like de Villiers and Warner also arrived at the WT20 less fresh, the result of years of touring in all forms; while many T20 specialists are on the road nearly as long, Tests are far more draining. And de Villiers and Warner also practise far less in T20: after last year's IPL, Warner played two T20 matches in 292 days. Returning to T20, he has felt like a rugby union star out of sync with the demands of rugby sevens. His predicament risks becoming a common fate until countries block off several months before the World T20 to focus exclusively on the format.

While de Villiers and Warner departed in the Super 10s, the World T20 has been a triumph for the anti-Messis. These are cricket's equivalent of David Healy, who scored just four goals in 44 Premier League appearances but, with the side designed around him, was a man transformed for Northern Ireland, scoring a national record 36 international goals, including a hat trick over Spain and the winner against England.

In keeping with the country's tradition of rising to more than the sum of their parts in world events, several Healy impersonators have emerged from New Zealand. None have been better than Grant Elliott, who has defied a lack of T20 pedigree; he has never been bought by an IPL side. While other players have suffered from a lack of clarity about their roles, Elliott finishes innings with a combination of canny placing, hard running and selective hitting. With the ball he has found the slow pitches in India well suited to his undemonstrative wicket-to-wicket bowling, normally coming in at the end and just after the Powerplay. Elliott has been adept at honing these roles not merely because of his experience and skill but because of the experience afforded by being a white-ball specialist for two years.

The same is true of Ashish Nehra, who has not used a red ball in international cricket since the start of 2014. Recalled after five years away from international cricket, Nehra has thrived with swing, accuracy and cutters. He has been allowed to replicate his IPL role, typically bowling three overs during the Powerplay and has settled seamlessly back into the side during India's intensive lead-in to the WT20: they played ten T20Is in six weeks before the tournament, preparation far exceeding that of Australia and South Africa.

Yet it is West Indies who provide the greatest example of a cricketing David Healy. Eighteen overs are the sum of Samuel Badree's IPL experience, and it has been seven years since his last first-class match.

Badree is not a huge turner of the ball, but it has proved no barrier to T20I effectiveness: his 26 games have brought 37 wickets at under 15 apiece, conceding less than a run a ball. He delivers legspin with accuracy, pace and bounce, equally comfortable against left- and right-handers alike. Even his lack of spin is arguably an advantage in T20, rendering it harder for batsmen to open up angles.

When Badree arrived in India, he had not played for West Indies since 2014. Yet he returned to find his role opening the attack, normally bowling out within ten overs of the innings, unchanged: he has opened in all four West Indies matches at the World T20 so far, and in all 26 T20Is of his career.

At 35, Badree would seem an unlikely trendsetter. But he points to a future in which, unless countries embrace the need to adequately prepare their dwindling band of three-format players for T20 tournaments, international T20 success could become largely the preserve of short-format specialists.

Tim Wigmore is a freelance journalist and author of Second XI: Cricket in its Outposts