“I have played the game with pure enjoyment and unbridled enthusiasm. Now, at the age of 37, that flame no longer burns so brightly.”
And just like that, one of the most significant chapters in world cricket came to an end.
With AB de Villiers announcing his retirement from the sport, he has left behind a crazy void that is difficult to fill. But then again, the sport is defined by continuity rather than full stops and cricket will eventually come to terms with his absence, just like the South Africans have on the international circuit.
But what will perhaps never change is the enduring images of the man, doing anything and everything simultaneously, changing the lexicon of modern-day cricket with audacious shots with chutzpah written all over it. As Tristan Holme once wrote, “de Villiers 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.”
It was never more visible than the shortest format of the game, where he was truly the best player ever. In whatever way you would want to try to understand his career and put it into perspective, there is a clear demarcation between him and the rest of the chasing pack. It is how he built an incredible legacy for himself, without which cricket would have been poorer.
The only non-Indian player to take part in every single edition of the IPL since its inception in 2008, de Villiers has signed off with 5162 runs - among only six players to have scored more than 5000 runs - at an average of 39.71 and a strike rate of 151.69. What makes it crazier is the fact that, of batters to have scored 4000 or more runs in IPL, AB's average of 39.71 is the third-best (behind Warner and Gayle). And to reiterate, he was not an opener. He hit sixes as frequently as anyone while accumulating runs as consistently as anyone while batting in the toughest position in the T20s.
While he bossed the middle-over phase with elan, it is scary that he struck at 210.5 in the last five overs, with only Chris Gayle at a strike rate of 204.58 standing close to him. But then Gayle is an opener who has batted only 28 times in the death overs as compared to the Saffer who has batted 81 times, scoring almost three times higher than the West Indian superstar.
AB is also arguably the greatest batter versus pace the sport has ever seen in the T20s. Of batters who have played 100 or more innings, three people (Mohammed Rizwan, Babar Azam, and KL Rahul) average more than AB's 43.02. But he is also fourth on the list for the best SR against pace in T20 cricket (164.2). Thus it doesn’t really need a trained eye or a number-cruncher to understand how he changed the design of shot-making and pacers were at the receiving end of those onslaughts more than ever. Be it Jasprit Bumrah or Lasith Malinga, be it Bhuvneshwar Kumar or Dwayne Bravo, de Villiers never really struggled.
Towards the fag end of his career, he had some concerns against leg-spin bowling, but he made up for that with his success against finger-spinners and googlies, which made the opposition skipper rethink their strategy multiple times. But with advancing years, that was bound to happen but the way he managed to invent and reinvent himself to be a genuine force for RCB was something every cricket fan would be thankful for. He remained an original who thrived on being an original.
Despite the confusing mindset many teams still possess as far as their idea for the shortest format is concerned, sixes have remained the ultimate currency that decides the winner, more often than not. In that count, AB stands tall as a giant in the IPL where he remained the best batter for RCB even when he was clearly past his prime years. He has hit the second most sixes in IPL history. Among those who have hit 150 or more sixes in IPL, only Gayle (2.53) has hit more sixes per innings than AB (1.47). Thus when he said, “I am going to be an RCB-ian for life” in his farewell, it rightfully struck a chord.
However, IPL was only a part of the larger legacy that he had built for himself. As much as Mr. 360 is applicable for his range of shots, his ability to score everyone around the world, with equal prudence, makes a story in itself. He averaged 33 more and struck at 134 or more in every country he has batted in (min 10 innings). Mastered every condition there is, leaving an indelible mark in the annals of cricket history that would be hard to beat.
AB de Villiers will be remembered as the first truly great batter in the shortest format of the game whose instincts and temperament was perfectly aligned to the maze of this universe. He departs the scene as a stand-out performer and an athlete who defied the basic virtues of the sport to write a chapter in his own inimitable style. The onus is now on future generations to deliver on the benchmark.