De Villiers goes back to having fun

AB de Villiers lifts one over short third man BCCI

In January 2017, AB de Villiers said he "felt like the world is on top of my shoulders". An elbow injury and a focus on prioritising his limited-overs career forced him to take a break from Tests for the most of 2017. This was about the time he was seen as a fading threat. Through a combination of his health, a transitioning South African team and a sub-par IPL season - he scored 216 runs in nine games - in 2017, de Villiers was shackled.

Frequently forced to score tough runs, de Villiers has had to embrace a new role recently: not to sweep fast bowlers or hit 31-ball ODI hundreds, but to primarily rebuild faltering innings. For a spectator, it seemed the quality was there but the fun had gone away from de Villiers' batting.

In the recently-concluded series against Australia, bowlers attempted to throw de Villiers' rhythm off by sledging. Then Nathan Lyon dropped a ball near him after he was run out in Durban. Australia won that match by 118 runs. De Villiers responded with one of his finest Test innings ever, an unbeaten 126 in Port Elizabeth that turned that series around.

Still, there was no freedom. There was a 23-ball 44 against Kolkata Knight Riders in Royal Challengers Bangalore's first game of the season. There was also a 40-ball 57, another innings of tough, scrappy runs against Kings XI Punjab. But finally there was a complete release against Delhi Daredevils in Bengaluru on Saturday.

Batting with the knowledge that there was Virat Kohli as a failsafe at the other end, de Villiers' batting was fun again: sweeping spinners into gaps early in his innings, hitting sixes onto the roof, scooping fast bowlers over fine leg and then improvising forehand swats over cover when he couldn't sweep quicks bowling over 130 kmph. It was the complete range, the 360-degrees of modern T20 batting, invented by de Villiers himself.

Interestingly, it began because he was intimidated. "I felt a bit threatened by the left-arm spinner [Shahbaz Nadeem] because he got a wicket, the ball was gripping a bit in the deck," de Villiers said in a post-match interview. "I felt I had to apply pressure on him, otherwise he was going to get me out. It was a counterattack in a way."

Much of de Villiers' batting is down to his hand-eye coordination and his history with other sports, like tennis and rugby. Much more of his batting is down to the speed of his decision-making. Currently, there are few batsmen who make decisions quicker than de Villiers. And, very often, his judgement is right.

It's a case of mind and body being in unison. Such as when he flicked Nadeem between long-on and deep midwicket, aware of a gap in that region and relying on placement instead of power, with a fast outfield. Or when he picked the length of a short ball from Rahul Tewatia, rocked back and pulled a six onto the roof.

His reactions to these decisions are also responsible for his superior timing. De Villiers is almost never hurried into a shot he doesn't want to play. That extra time allows him to get his hands in position to meet the ball when he has to. When he is late, his athleticism bails him out. On Saturday, there were several one-bounce fours from shots he didn't intend to hit for six.

"It's a matter of seeing the ball well," de Villiers said. "It doesn't happen every night, like my last knock in Mumbai. I wasn't seeing it well. If you pick up that information, the first metre or two, the ball coming out of the hand, you can analyse what's coming. You have that extra time to make the right decision. Then it comes down to experience, preparation and backing your ability to clear the boundary when that does happen."

De Villiers finished with 90 off 39 balls, while the rest of the batsmen on Saturday scored at an average strike rate of 129. In smart strike-rate terms - ESPNcricinfo's new metric to make sense of numbers in the shortest format - he struck at 332.52. Mandeep Singh, in a post-match press conference, said it was de Villiers' best T20 innings ever.

Considering several factors around him, as per the smart runs index, de Villiers' innings was worth 40 more runs, equating to a 39-ball 130. That's the kind of fun de Villiers likes to have while batting. On Saturday, it felt like the weight of the world was lifted from his shoulders.