AB de Villiers: Sportsman or Superhuman?

Following on from my last article on the batting secrets of Chris Gayle, I wanted to leave the supreme AB for dessert. He is an absolute pleasure and delight to watch, having taken the bowlers to the cleaners in recent times. From a scientific perspective, I’m not just going to delve into the secrets of his batting, because he is not just batting. Rather, I will approach and discuss this multi-skilled and talented sportsman from various spheres.

It is noteworthy that AB did not just partake in cricket in the early days, but other sports as well such as golf, rugby, tennis, badmington, and hockey – attaining National colours for most of these. With cricket, he is not just a batsman but also one of the greatest fielders in the world, a wicket-keeper and also an occasional bowler. So how do these speak to AB’s capabilities? It is evident from his diverse sporting background and skills in cricket, that AB has a high level of motor control, perceptual motor skills, hand-eye coordination, spatial awareness and depth perception. In addition to these, AB has a proficient strength and fitness level which leverages his performances over a long period of time with quality executions. He has explosive power which allows him to jump and catch the ball with one or both hands, especially at the boundary, combined with his hand-eye-coordination. His proprioception is far beyond that of his team mates and most opposition players. Proprioception is the combination of agility, balance and coordination (ABC). AB inevitably has the ‘C’ as well and everything else till Z. Will he be the ultimate x-factor of the World Cup? We will have to wait and see. My guess is that he is among three players to take the Man of the Series during the World Cup alongside the other two contenders: Tim Southee and Chris Gayle.

As a wicket-keeper and fielder, he is able to throw himself at any ball coming to him and most of the time, making it look easy. Therefore, AB has immaculate twitch 2 muscle fibres and elasticity which allows him to be quick, agile and flexible. How does one train for these? Well aside from ABs raw talent, possibly good genes and hard work, one would have to be training smart from a young age. A critical factor, which contributes to this, is enjoyment. With no doubt, AB enjoys what he does and is always up for the challenge. Mentally, he is also very well prepared.

Now the question that everyone has been waiting for: what is his batting secret? Truth is, there is no secret, it is sheer genius. AB plays with a combination of finesse and class. You can’t coach finesse as you either have it or you don’t. Does he premeditate those fantastic slog sweeps, Dilshan scoops, reverse sweeps and paddles, especially with bowlers coming at him around 130km/h? The answer is no and he says himself that he treats every ball on its own merit. In order to execute such prolific scoring shots with a staggering strike rate, one would need to have exceptional eyesight aside from proprioception and motor control. A common, yet simple thing which also allows AB to hit the ball so well and variable is that he keeps his head still with every ball faced.

With just over a decade playing for South Africa, AB has figured out his game and knows it well. He also picks his areas on the field to hit the ball with precision. When batting in T20s and ODIs, his body language tells us: “you bowl, I hit”. He can play most of the shots in the book. Notably in Test cricket, his favourite shot is the square cut. He also executes the cover and straight drives, late cut, pull and leg glance. Well, with ODI and T20 cricket it appears that his scoring shots depend on the field placement, which means that he is able to manipulate any attack in the world with accuracy, and that is very rare. If fine leg or deep square is up, he shuffles across and scoops it over square or fine leg for four or six. If you bowl short, he is confident to pull you for six in any cricket ground. If it’s full, he will loft you over your head for six. It it’s outside off he will loft it for six over cover or pierce the two fieldsmen for four. If there is a long on and long off, he will give himself space and loft it for six either on the off or slog sweep over cow’s corner. If you bowl back of a length outside off, he will squeeze if for four at backward point OR reverse sweep for six, even if there is a sweeper or third man on the boundary, it makes no difference. All great batsmen know where their field is with every ball bowled at them.

Another interesting question: how similar or different is AB or Jonty Rhodes? We all know that Jonty was and still is the best fielder the world has ever seen. He set the standard for world class fielding, and with his colloquial and jovial style of batting, his sweep and reverse sweeps, for four or six were iconic. So how does this make these two supermen different? Fact is, they both are multi-skilled and talented individuals who have proprioception, speed, hand-eye- coordination, strength, flexibility and soft hands. If Jonty was playing in this modern era, would he have batted as well as AB? We know that each player is unique but that would be a tricky one. Most would say AB and Jonty are/were good in their own way. However, today the bats are wider and stronger and the boundaries are inner/smaller. Twenty years ago, 260 was a tough score to chase – today if you have less than 300, it is challenging to defend. The game has evolved to greater proportions. In addition, Jonty was also an avid hockey player in his early days. For me, AB tops this beautiful rivalry. Can Jonty keep and bowl a bit as well? I definitely think so. My verdict is that Jonty is a better fielder and AB is a better batsman.

The fact that AB went out to bat on the 27/02/15 against West Indies with gastroenteritis indicates his strong will, drive and guts, and yet he was still able to come out on top with a mild sickness – that is just phenomenal. He now holds the record for the fastest 50,100 and 150. In ODI cricket, will he get the fastest 200? Highly possible, you can bet on it! After his cricket career, I think he should be employed as the South African Minister of Defense. Will he make a good one? Absolutely, he’ll smash it for six, for many years!

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