Is there such a thing as the perfectly-paced Twenty20 innings? Does this format even allow for its existence? Well today, at Kingsmead, AB de Villiers came very close to perfection.
When he came in to bat there were 119 balls left in the innings. By the end of the second over he had to reckon with the pressure of the fall of the mighty Delhi Daredevils openers, Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir. Can one really spend time consolidating in Twenty20?
"I wanted to give myself the chance to express myself at the end of the innings," said de Villiers, reflecting back on that moment. "I did very well in my first 30 balls to knock it around, I got the odd boundary. My 50 wasn't too slow. I did scratch around a little bit."
Of those 30 deliveries, de Villiers faced ten from Muttiah Muralitharan. With the team situation he wasn't going to take any undue risks against the class spinner. Luckily for de Villiers, Tillakaratne Dilshan was charging ahead like a runaway train and gave him some breathing space. de Villiers could drop anchor, not in the conventional 50-overs sense, but keep nudging the ball around with the odd big hit. It was a sign of his maturity that he adopted the support role. He was relatively quiet till he crossed 50 when another slice of luck came his way - Albie Morkel dropped a sitter. de Villiers turned violent from then on.
When you see de Villiers swinging to the on side, it rarely looks a slog. The bat swings down gracefully and the body position is perfect. When you freeze-frame him in his stance, it reminds one of the sepia-toned pictures of past cricketers from another age. Look at the left foot. It is almost pointing towards mid-off.
de Villiers is probably the only top batsman in modern-day cricket with such a technique. He comes closest to mirroring musty photographs of batsmen with their front feet point down the pitch while in stance. That allows for a free swing of the bat and de Villiers rarely gets cramped with an incoming ball. Others waste precious seconds in opening up from a side-on stance. Not de Villiers.
In theory, it might cause him trouble with the away-seaming delivery as he would be slightly playing away from the body. But it's a perfect position to be in for the off-drives and when you are swinging to the on side. As he showed today, looting 79 runs on the leg side, with 47 coming in the midwicket arc.
His best was reserved for Andrew Flintoff, who had another poor day on the field. The 19th over went for two sixes and two fours, with a swept six and a pulled four on bent knee being the highlights. What was de Villiers thinking then? "I respect him [Flintoff] as a bowler. He's a truly amazing bowler," he said. "It was my day today and things just happened according to plan. My shots came off and things happened according to plan."
Of late, most of de Villiers' plans are coming to fruition. At the start of the summer, he said he wanted to be the No. 1 player in the world and by the end of the season, he has walked the talk. If Perth was the pinnacle of his Test batting, today at Durban fans were treated to the best of him in Twenty20. He has talked about the transformation before and stressed the secret again today.
"I have kept it really simple. I just think of couple of things while batting. I spend lot of time with Jacques Kallis in the changing room; he has lots of experience and helped me a lot. Also, I am lot stronger mentally and just playing my game."
"Keeping things simple and expressing myself," translates to an uncluttered mind and a great confidence and awareness of one own's game. They are the traits of a top sportsman and de Villiers is hell bent on showing he is one of them. And he is.