129 runs off 52 balls used to be barely believable, pinch-yourself stuff. AB De Villiers has made a whole new genre out of such innings. It is a pursuit he successfully undertakes every other day, with a barely believable gestalt of conventional and ingenious strokeplay. While all the record-breaking has become way too normal and frequently self-destructing to keep track of, innings like these light up every IPL, and explain the Circus Maximus-esque chants of “AB, AB” in stadia across the country, even when India are playing.
Of these 52 balls De Villiers faced against Gujarat Lions at the M.Chinnaswamy Stadium, Bengaluru, an abnormally high 25 per cent were dots, nine of which came against some clever bowling from Ravindra Jadeja. In an outlier of a spell, Jadeja kept things so tight that De Villiers said he was “really angry for facing those dot balls today”. In spite of these dots that frustrated him, some of the shots he manufactured every time he needed to get out of jail, go quite some way to fathom the incredulity of an innings like this.
It is the end of the 17th over, the last ball of Jadeja’s spell. In an innings going at over 10 an over, his spell has cost him just 28 runs, at a shade over 7. The ball is fired in at pace into De Villiers’ body. It seems to be the way to bowl to him, considering how the others have failed with slower, loopy stuff. It is a ball that deserves to be hit for a single, at best. Yet, De Villiers, his century already done, with eight batsmen to come after him, goes back, and plays what is truly a hockey defender’s shot. It is a scoop by the corner flag, to clear a ball from defense back to the midfield. This time, the backfoot punch thuds into the roof of the stadium and ricochets back, earning him a familiar six runs. Whither have you disappeared, oh justice?
In an era of inventiveness, power and fearless range hitting, this is, perhaps, what separates the likes of De Villiers and Kohli from the rest - the ability to punish 'good' balls, even 'wicket-taking' ones, in the same way they deal with 'bad' balls. A good drinking game for cricket nerds and commentators would be a version of the good old "what happens next”, with videos of such deliveries paused before they meet the bat. Most of these have equal odds of being described as “clever bowling”, or “outrageous hitting”. There seems to be no other explanation to such scary regularity to what should be once-in-a-generation innings. Except, in the T20 era, a generation seems to last only a few weeks.
Throughout De Villiers’ innings, the man with the best view of the mechanics of it all, Dinesh Karthik, standing behind the stumps, kept applauding his bowlers for balls that were hit to the fence. These were instinctive gestures born out of years of playing the game, with the confidence that at some point, such bowling would yield wickets. Except, this was de Villiers mastering a format where bowlers have no time to build pressure and force mistakes. These rare 'mistakes' - edges, lashes outside off-stump - flew past packed ringside fields, for more boundaries.
Karthik clarified as much in the post-match press conference about how 'it all looks easy on TV', and the ridiculousness of De Villiers hitting back foot sixes casually, almost on a whim, off any bowler. Sometimes, a double teapot, a shrug of the shoulders and a wry, conceding smile, is all opposition sides have left, against such domination.
Dwayne Bravo is a seasoned T20 globetrotter, who can claim to be among the few bowling successes in an era where batting has evolved at the speed of light. De Villiers and Kohli hit him for 30 runs in a single over, after he had gone for just 16 off his first two. Yet again, the laws of cricket and to some extent, probability, went for a toss, as perfect deliveries were wristily dug out for fours and sixes by the duo. Forced into the belief that there is no justice for good balls, Bravo then sprayed one down what would have been leg slip’s throat, and got slapped for four runs. A no-ball call for height added to the misery.
The free hit delivery was fired in yet again, in the 'perfect' length, that once uncertain area between full and good length, leaving the batsman without time to free his arms. The South African's answer? A simple, nonchalant swipe over covers for six. This was no net bowler, and they were not practising range hitting with baseball throws. Who wants to be a bowler anymore?
Among hundreds of open-mouthed gasping emojis and general under-utilization of Twitter’s 140 characters due to speechlessness from such hitting, was a reminder from Carlos Brathwaite, on the need for fans to be grateful to tournaments like the IPL, for bringing the likes of Kohli and De Villiers into the same line-up.
— Carlos Brathwaite (@TridentSportsX) May 14, 2016
Over 140 years of the game, apart from World Series cricket for a few years and the occasional benefit match, best in class talents like Kohli and De Villiers have hardly come together in competitive fixtures. Picking Dream XI's has been a pastime for every other boring afternoon, an argument for the pub get together. With partnerships like these, franchise T20 cricket is making them redundant, leaving little to fantasy, as innings after incredible innings pile up, closely bunched together.
There will be clamour for longer boundaries, for regulations on bat sizes, every time such innings are played. While most of that is deserved, it should not blur out the need to keep pinching oneself, to gasp in awe every time these feats are achieved and records are rewritten, as cricket’s cliches and conventions get re-defined by what is truly some exceptional talent that is gracing our times.