Saturday, January 17, 2015

Five stalwarts to look out for in the cricket World Cup 2015: 1. Abraham de Villiers. Excerpt from Indra Vikram Singh’s new book ‘Indian Spring’

Priceless asset for the Proteas

World Cup matches…..15
Highest score…..146

That he is a natural sportsman is apparent from A.B. de Villiers’ batting and fielding, his fluid movements and innate elegance. Technically sound and naturally aggressive at the top or in the middle-order, keen of eye, agile behind the wickets and close to the bat, fleet-footed in the outfield, he is a priceless asset for the Proteas. Dashing as well as reliable, in good times and in a crisis, de Villiers is a captain’s dream. His World Cup record is evidence of all these attributes.

The start, though, was not so brilliant in the 2007 World Cup against the weekenders from the Netherlands. Opening the batting with skipper Graeme Smith, de Villiers was caught behind off the second ball of the match for a duck. South Africa registered a 221-run win.

He set the record right in another stroll in Warner Park with the Scots, who raised a total of 186. Smith and de Villiers made short work of the target with a spate of boundaries, hoisting the fifty in 6.3 overs. Smith got to his half-century first, the hundred of the innings came up in 12.2 overs, and de Villiers raised his fifty in 41 balls. And then he hammered Glenn Rogers for two consecutive sixes over long-on, before holing out in the same direction. His 62 came off 45 deliveries punctuated by 9 boundaries and the 2 sixes. The partnership was worth 134 in 15.5 overs. Smith missed his century by 9 runs, and South Africa raced to a seven-wicket win in 23.2 overs.

The Aussie run-machine churned out 377 runs for six wickets, Matthew Hayden slamming the then fastest World Cup hundred in 66 balls, and Ricky Ponting and Michael Clarke losing their wickets in the nineties. All eight batsmen on show had a strike-rate of 100 or above. Smith and de Villiers made a tremendous effort against the formidable attack. De Villiers set the tone, stroking left-armer Nathan Bracken for a four and a six off consecutive deliveries in the first over. There were five more boundaries by the pair in the first 5 overs. The great Glenn McGrath came on now and de Villiers hit him for three successive boundaries rightaway in the arc between mid-wicket and point. There was a lull as McGrath and Bracken conceded only 3 runs in the next 15 deliveries. The duo was back to their aggressive best, clouting fours and sixes with regularity. This time de Villiers was first to his half-century in 47 balls, and immediately lofted McGrath over mid-on to the boundary, raising the hundred in 13.1 overs, and replicating the shot in the same over. Smith’s fifty came up in 41 balls. Soon de Villiers rocketed Brad Hogg over long-on for a six. In the next over he turned on Andrew Symonds, who had a fixation for the short-pitched ball, pulling him for three consecutive boundaries. Just as the Aussies might have been worried and de Villiers was racing towards his hundred, came a turn in fortunes. A powerful direct hit from long-leg by Shane Watson had de Villiers run out for 92, the same unfortunate manner of dismissal and the same score as Clarke. His brilliant knock had occupied only 70 deliveries, studded with 14 fours and those 2 sixes. The partnership had tallied 160 in just 21 overs and put the Proteas right on track. Soon Smith began cramping, de Villiers was back as runner, but both had to return after a while as the captain’s condition was too debilitating to continue. Then wickets began to crumble regularly, Smith was back but dismissed soon for 74, the procession continued and South Africa were bowled out for 294 in 48 overs. Watson’s throw and Smith’s cramps might have pre-empted a thriller in St. Kitts. 

The pendulum swung again as de Villiers was bowled by Chaminda Vaas for another duck in the super-eight clash with Sri Lanka, but South Africa pulled off a humdinger by one wicket as Lasith Malinga scythed through the tail with four wickets off consecutive deliveries spanning two overs. 

There was a successive duck for de Villiers as the lanky Irish paceman Boyd Rankin had him caught, trying to square-cut one that bounced more than expected. But an easy win was logged up as expected.

Then giant-killers Bangladesh upset South Africa too. Having strung together 251 for eight, the Bangladesh bowlers kept a stranglehold. Smith (12) and Jacques Kallis (32) departed after putting up an aggressive posture. At the other end of the scale, de Villiers tried to grit it out but was bowled by an armer from Abdur Razzak for 15, having been in for 39 deliveries. Wickets kept tumbling and South Africa were beaten by 67 runs.

Pitted opposite hosts West Indies, de Villiers atoned handsomely for his failures. He lost Smith early but aligned with Kallis in a huge partnership. Kallis was in a belligerent mood but de Villiers caught up with him and hammered Dwayne Bravo for a four and a six off successive balls, raising his fifty in 58 deliveries. The century partnership came in 15.4 overs. They went on merrily until Kallis was bowled for 81, the partnership worth 170 off 28.2 overs. As Herschelle Gibbs joined him, a delighted de Villiers ushered in his first hundred in One-day Internationals, having faced 114 balls. He soon strained his hamstring and Smith returned the favour by running for him. Having decided to wield the big stick while he could, de Villiers lashed out at Chris Gayle, clouting 2 sixes in the 40th over, with Gibbs striking a four of his own in between. De Villiers unleashed his willow on Ramnaresh Sarwan in the next over, clouting him over mid-wicket for consecutive sixes and a four to point a couple of balls later. Now in considerable strife, de Villiers slammed two boundaries off Bravo in the following over. Soon Corey Collymore had him caught for 146, ending the mayhem of 130 deliveries in which he blasted 12 fours and 5 sixes. Gibbs’ contribution was 18 in a stand of 70 in 7.5 overs. South Africa went on to amass 356 for four. After a bit of rest, de Villiers was back on the field and took a fine diving catch at point. West Indies fought gamely right down the order but could not manage more than 289, having lost nine wickets. De Villiers took away the man-of-the-match prize for his heroic knock.

The Kiwis tripped the Proteas by five wickets, and astonishingly de Villiers bagged his fourth duck of the tournament. The pendulum was swinging wildly.

South Africa fought back, trouncing England by nine wickets in the last super-eight encounter. Chasing a target of 155, de Villiers was off to a blazing start hitting Sajid Mahmood for 2 fours in each of his first two overs. Smith joined in the boundary hitting mode and the fifty was up in 5.4 overs. The duo continued to find the pickets until de Villiers edged one to the wicketkeeper. His 42 comprised 8 boundaries spanning 35 deliveries. The opening stand had realized 85 runs in 9.5 overs overs. Smith (89 not out, 58 balls, 13 fours) and Kallis brought up victory in 19.2 overs.    

The Aussies were unstoppable in the semi-final, skittling the Proteas for 149 in less than 44 overs, Andrew Hall drawing first blood with a brilliant haul of five for 18 in his 10 overs. De Villiers was third out for 15, none of their batsmen got to fifty, and they were defeated by seven wickets.

It was a strange kind of World Cup for de Villiers, being dismissed for four ducks and two 15s in 10 innings, still averaging 37.20 without a not out, and with the help of a century, a near-century, a half-century, and a near half-century. Indeed de Villiers and South Africa experienced a whole range of emotions in this tournament. The elegant strokemaker, though, entertained all the while, well illustrated by his strike-rate of 100.81 runs per hundred balls.       

With Hashim Amla now in the side, de Villiers was batting down the order in the 2011 World Cup, and donning the big gauntlets when required, a mark of his talent and versatility. West Indies totalled 222 and then dismissed Amla and Kallis early. De Villiers joined Smith at 20 for two after 5 overs, and was soon into his stride, stroking speedster Kemar Roach for three exquisite boundaries in an over. The half-century of the stand came up in 9.1 overs. True to type, de Villiers skipped down the wicket to Chris Gayle and sent the ball sailing over long-on for a six, raising his fifty at a-run-a-ball. The century stand arrived in 19.4 overs, and soon after de Villiers tonked the slow left-armer Suleiman Benn for a four and a six on the off-side off successive deliveries. Smith was bowled in the next over, the partnership worth 119 in 23.3 overs. There was still some work to do as Jean-Paul Duminy joined in, and apart from an early boundary each in their partnership, they concentrated on picking up the ones and twos. A bit of rain halted play for a few minutes, and immediately after de Villiers raised his century off 97 deliveries, the quickest by a South African in the World Cup, and a successive one against the West Indies in the premier event. They brought up victory in 42.5 overs, de Villiers unbeaten on 107, having faced 105 balls and stroked 8 fours and 2 sixes. The partnership was worth 84 off 14.2 overs. Leg-spinner Imran Tahir with his bag of four for 41 on debut, was a contender for the man-of-the-match award, but de Villiers eventually got the nod. The campaign had begun on the right note.

Morne van Wyk was given the responsibility behind the sticks in the workout versus the Dutch, leaving de Villiers free to concentrate on his run-getting. And he did get the runs in glorious fashion after Smith and Kallis had departed just after the fifty had been posted. Amla was now de Villiers’ associate in a huge partnership. After a bit of a look-in, de Villiers beautifully on-drove Ryan ten Doeschate to the boundary, and off the next delivery cut him powerfully above point for another four. He brought up his fifty off 47 balls, as the paired cruised. The hundred of the stand came up in 16.1 overs. Amla sailed to his ton in 121 deliveries. They raised the termpo with the commissioning of the batting Powerplay in the 42nd over, de Villiers crashing Pieter Seelaar for a six and four off successive deliveries, and Amla striking another boundary a ball later. A Mudassar Bukhari yorker was despatched to the point boundary by de Villiers, who reached his hundred with a single off the last ball of the over. This was now the fastest hundred by a South African in the World Cup, off 88 balls. In the next over he launched Bernard Loots for on-side sixes off the first three deliveries to log up the double-century partnership in 28 overs. Amla helped himself to a four off the fifth ball. It was ten Doeschate’s turn in the following over and de Villiers now struck three consecutive off-side boundaries straighaway. Two balls later ten Doeschate had Amla caught at point for 113, scored off 130 deliveries containing 8 fours. The stand was worth 221 in 29.2 overs. A cricketing cliché showed up once again as de Villiers was run out in the next over. Both partners were dismissed in quick succession after a long partnership. His superb 134 spanned just 98 deliveries and was embellished with 13 glorious hits to the boundary and 4 sailing high above it. The later batsmen too enjoyed themselves and South Africa ended up with 351 for five. Holland were bowled out for 120. It was a successive hundred as well as man-of-the-match prize for de Villiers in the first two matches of this tournament.

A low-scoring thriller at Chepauk went England’s way by just 6 runs. Tahir (four for 38) and Robin Peterson (three for 22) spun out the English for 171 in 45.4 overs. South Africa began well, Amla and Smith raising 63 in 14.1 overs. Then the wheels began to come off with three wickets gone in just about 5 overs. De Villiers and Faf du Plessis gritted it out, adding 42 runs in 12.2 overs but England began striking back. Shouldering arms to James Anderson, de Villiers found to his dismay that the ball had grazed his off-stump. In an innings of 25 completely out of character, de Villiers had not hit a single boundary in a stay off 44 balls. Two more wickets fell at the same score, another after 3 runs, van Wyk and Dale Steyn raised hopes only to be dashed as the last three wickets crashed for 5 runs.

Another nerve-wracking encounter took place with hosts India at Jamtha, Nagpur, but this time it was a high-scoring one that South Africa managed to pull off with just 2 balls to go. India were propelled by Sachin Tendulkar’s 99th international hundred, but Steyn pulled it back for South Africa with a five-wicket haul. With the asking-rate hovering around 7.5 runs per over, de Villiers joined forces with Kallis at 127 for two. His first big hit was a six over mid-wicket off Harbhajan Singh. Kallis was run out for 69 with the score reading 173 for three with the required rate climbing close to 9. The batting Powerplay was availed of immediately as Duminy arrived, and the boundaries started flowing. Both batsmen found the ropes off Ashish Nehra’s over. Seven runs came off each ball of a Zaheer Khan over without a boundary. Again the pair hit a four each off Munaf Patel. Then Zaheer bore the brunt with de Villiers hitting 2 boundaries and Duminy a six. Harbhajan came on in an effort to slow down the pace in more ways than one, but de Villiers defty lofted the ball to the ropes backward of square, ringing in his half-century. He swept the next delivery hard but was caught at square-leg. His 52 had come off 39 deliveries and he had struck 6 fours and a six. Virtually every batsman contributed to the cause, South Africa managing to scrape through just in time with three wickets to spare, Peterson swinging the bat with abandon in the final over.

Having been rested in the last two league games with Ireland and Bangladesh, de Villiers was back in the quarter-final face-off with New Zealand, and with the wicketkeeping gloves too. The Kiwis posted 221 for eight. After the early loss of Amla, Smith and Kallis put on 61 runs. Then the Jacob Oram magic started taking effect with the scalp of Smith. Things seemed on course with Kallis and de Villiers in charge but a brillant catch on the mid-wicket boundary by Oram sent Kallis on his way. Duminy did not last long, but another run out of de Villiers two balls later was a huge blow. The sight of de Villiers sprawled on the turf as he dived desperately for the crease might have been symbolic of what lay in store for his team. His 40-ball 35 was studded with 4 fours. Oram went on to bag four for 39, and South Africa crashed out, beaten by 49 runs.      

It was a superb tournament for de Villiers, having scored 353 runs in 5 matches with an average of 88.25. A strike-rate of 108.28 and 2 hundreds and a fifty were proof of his brilliant form. Unfortunately, his team had faltered once again in the final stages of a World Cup.

South Africa could not ask for more of de Villiers in the World Cup. A tally of more than 700 runs, average above 50, strike-rate over 100, 3 hundreds, 3 fifties, versatile with the bat and in the field. With plenty of time still to go it is hard to imagine what de Villiers will achieve, and in endearing, spectacular fashion. He is definitely poised to be counted amongst the greats. 

(From the Hall of Fame section of Indra Vikram Singh’s new book ‘Indian Spring’. The author can be contacted on email 

Indian Spring

ISBN 978-81-901668-7-4

Will be available shortly in leading bookshops, and online on several websites.

Distributors in India: Variety Book Depot, Connaught Place, New Delhi, Phones + 91 11 23417175, 23412567. 

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