It is fitting that AB de Villiers should have found such a natural second home in Bangalore over the past eight years. After all, Bangalore is the IT hub of India, an industry in which a disruptive innovation is seen as the ultimate creation.
The term, which was coined by Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen more than 20 years ago, refers to technological innovations that change the way a market or an entire industry operates. For examples, think of the Internet, Napster, smartphones, Netflix, 3-D printing, virtual reality and, unfortunately, plastic.
While de Villiers has gained idolatry in many cities in the cricket world, his status as the great disruptor of the game has undoubtedly added to his appeal among the Chinnaswamy audience, with whom there has been a special connection for two months each year. In truth, though, the relationship has worked both ways, because it was only through the freedom de Villiers enjoyed at the IPL that he launched his game through the glass ceiling.
When de Villiers first came onto the scene, his talent was unquestionable. But his technique was largely traditional – so much so that South Africa picked him as an opening batsman, the position that requires the tightest methods in the Test game. It was more than two years before he scored a one-day century, and when he did it relied purely on hand-eye coordination, particularly in the latter parts of an innings in which one leg was continually cramping up.
It was only in the IPL age that he developed the extraordinary range of batting that has made him such a disruptive influence, a range that most obviously refers to the ability of ‘Mr. 360’ to score all around the ground, but also to pace an innings so specifically to the context.
The latter skill came to him first, and was most famously exhibited in Australia in 2012, when he scored 33 from 220 deliveries to save one Test, then smashed 169 from 184 balls to win the next one and claim the series.
The 360-degree scoring came next, and was announced in style at the Wanderers on 18 January 2015 when, over the course of just 44 balls, de Villiers scored 149 runs. To say that he broke the record for the fastest ODI century by five deliveries in the process requires context, because what it actually meant was that he smashed an existing record by 13.9% – a statistical anomaly in any established sport. The previous record holder, Corey Anderson, had set it with a hitting method that was brutal in its simplicity, or perhaps simple in its brutality. De Villiers lowered it by changing the very parameters of batting, not to mention the relationship between batsman and bowler. Bowlers had previously been the instigators, determining where the ball might be hit by deciding where to bowl. But against the West Indies, de Villiers hopped around the crease to dictate where the ball would be bowled according to where he wanted to hit it. In the process, he showed other batsmen of a high skill level what the future could look like.
This year he took his impact into new territory, when not only did he change the course of a Test series, but influenced the direction of an opposition’s history. De Villiers’s unbeaten 126 from just 146 balls in Port Elizabeth came in an innings when the only other batsmen to pass fifty scored at a strike rate of under 40, and when South Africa were on track for another devastating collapse against an Australian attack that had decimated them in Durban. Without his innings, which came against sustained reverse swing, Australia would likely have taken a 2-0 lead in the series, a position from which they would not have been driven to the desperate measures that brought about the disintegration of an entire team culture.
Having witnessed the extent of de Villiers’s powers so recently, South Africa know what they are losing. For a glimpse of what life is like without him, they need only glance back at last year’s tour of England, when the Test team showed some backbone at Trent Bridge but ultimately melted into a disappointingly pliable opponent.
And of course, de Villiers’s retirement is a loss for all cricket lovers, and a stark reminder of why so many within the game expect international cricket to be superseded by franchises. “I am tired,” de Villiers said, and after 14 years at the top that is understandable. But equally, at the age of 34, is this statement and his retirement not an indicator that international cricket, with its endless schedule and lack of context, is too often a draining exercise rather than an energising one? With all due respect, the idea of playing Sri Lanka in three effectively meaningless Tests next summer – just two years after their last sorry visit to South Africa – is unlikely to have acted as a source of enthusiasm. In fact, the thought is probably enough to empty any energy that might have been in the tank to begin with.
By jumping off the treadmill, both last year and now, de Villiers’s final act in international cricket is therefore to be another disruptive influence. The decision to put family ahead of Test cricket in 2017 was a very clear sign, and the feeling when de Villiers returned at the end of the year was that it would only be for the India and Australia series. But over the past few months, something else shifted. “My ultimate dream is not to win a World Cup. I’ve changed my mindset,” he said at an IPL event in India last month. “I feel it will be nice to win it, it’ll be a bonus, but if I don’t it’s not going to define my career.”
If the finest all-format batsman of his generation cannot get excited enough about an upcoming World Cup to push on for another year, it is an indictment on the weakening allure of international cricket. But as a disruptor who has changed the game of batting and also fielding, de Villiers has provided another hint of what cricket’s future might look like.
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