When AB de Villiers announced his retirement from all forms of cricket, the response from Indian fans was of shock and heartfelt grief. In recent times, the only thing that can compare to this feeling of loss was the retirement of Sachin Tendulkar.
AB de Villiers played his 100th Test match on 14 November 2015 at his second home, Bengaluru. He was in peak form having scored three centuries in the ODI series that preceded the Test series. Noticeably, each one of his hundreds at Kanpur, Chennai and Mumbai had received generous cheers from the crowd. And why not? They had witnessed the best batsman on the planet and probably the most likeable cricketer around putting on a show for them. Bengaluru though was determined to go one better than the other Indian cities and make the Day 1 to remember for the man who represents the city in the Indian Premier League (IPL).
There were shouts of ABD-ABD going around the ground even before the toss. Fans were carrying large collages of AB de Villiers, wishing him well for the game. South Africa batted first and as was the theme of that series, started capitulating to the guile and skill of Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja. Every wicket received manic cheers and murmurs of ABD-ABD from the crowd; they couldn't wait to welcome their cricketing deity.
When AB de Villiers finally walked in to bat at number 5, the roof came off the stadium as the crowd of twenty thousand odd roared ABD-ABD in unison. No ground in South Africa could have matched this kind of hero worship for the superstar batsman.
AB de Villiers got into his groove soon, and every time he found a gap through the infield, there were wild cheers around the Chinnaswamy stadium. This kind of support for an overseas player is extremely rare. Tendulkar got standing ovations when he walked in to bat at every ground in Australia, especially after Don Bradman compared himself to the Indian legend. But cheering every run and every boundary an away batsman scores against your home team is unheard of. This wasn't just grudging respect from the crowd; this was pure love and admiration for the player.
You will have to go through the annals of sports history itself to find something to compare to this. Probably, the 1990 World Cup semi-final in Italy where the home crowd at Naples had “Maradona in their hearts and Italy in their songs” comes close. Maradona was the undisputed king of Naples, the club he represented in Italian Serie A and had famously appealed to the Naples crowd to support Argentina over the home team Italy.
Indian crowds can be as partisan as it gets when it comes to cheering the home team. A pin drop silence every time an opposition batsman scores a boundary is a common sight at the Indian grounds. There have been occasions when Indian crowds couldn't digest their team's loss and retaliated by throwing objects on the ground. But here it was, an Indian crowd showering all their love at an away player, eagerly awaiting a hundred from him so that they can shout the roof down one more time. Unfortunately, AB fell 15 short of the 100, but the crowd had already made their statement. AB de Villiers belonged to cricket, not just to South Africa.
Words fall short in describing the genius of Abraham Benjamin de Villiers. He was a polymath who could have been a champion in any sport he took up. On the cricket field, he could take catches others won't even attempt and play shots that other couldn't conceive or describe. His close friend and RCB teammate Virat Kohli has time and again stated how he is in awe of this freak of nature.
When AB de Villiers announced his retirement from all forms of cricket, the response from Indian fans was of shock and heartfelt grief. In recent times, the only thing that can compare to this feeling of loss was the retirement of Sachin Tendulkar. It was almost inconceivable that a superhero can, as ABD put it, "run out of gas". Every cricket fan in India wanted to see him have another go at World Cup glory for his nation. A lot of Indian fans will still be cheering for South Africa as their second team in 2019, and a lot of that will be due to the ABD-effect.
The reason for ABD's popularity in India goes beyond his unbelievable cricketing abilities. Much like Tendulkar, the Indian crowd loves him for his humility, his infectious smile and the way he always plays the game in the right spirit.
Watching AB play the game was like watching some sort of revolution for freedom. To borrow a movie reference, if the cricket world is 'The Matrix' then ABD was 'The One'. He came here with the purpose of inspiring us to free our minds and believe that everything is possible. He came us to show, in Neo's words, "A world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries. A world where anything is possible."
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