While noting down the top players in the history of the Indian Premier League (IPL) or international cricket for that matter, there’s little doubt that AB de Villiers would find consideration. After all, the South African superstar has dazzled fans with his majestic batting skills over the last decade and a half.
One of the biggest arguments against de Villiers has been that he has not won a major international trophy in limited-overs cricket nor has he won the IPL. While that is true, it must be noted that he has performed quite well in numerous ‘big games’.
For example, in the 50-over World Cup, he averages 63.52 with the bat at an average of 117.29. Those are just ridiculous numbers. He averages 57.50 and has a strike rate of 96.63 in knockout matches in 50-over cricket’s showpiece event, albeit a sample size of three innings is small. There’s also a belief among his fans that if rain hadn’t played spoilsport during South Africa’s World Cup semi-final loss against New Zealand in 2015, he was on course to play his most defining ODI knock. He was unbeaten on 65 off 45 deliveries when the Proteas innings ended at the 43-over mark. With the form he was in during the tournament (482 runs at an average of 96.40 and a strike rate of 144.31), who’s to argue?
When it comes to the IPL, de Villiers has batted eight times in an IPL playoff game, scoring 227 runs at an average of 37.83 and a strike rate of 149.3 – once again, very good numbers. While he played a marvellous knock during the Eliminator against Rajasthan Royals in 2015, there can be little argument that his best effort in an IPL playoff contest came in the 2016 Qualifier 1 against the Gujarat Lions.
Coming into IPL 2016, de Villiers was in the form of his life. In addition to his batting, he had grown into a larger-than-life cricketer. During South Africa’s tour to India in 2015, there were chants of “AB AB” or “ABD ABD” heard during nearly every game. Indian fans are usually known to be very partisan, but de Villiers had overcome that barrier and had fans cheering him on even when he was turning out for the opposition.
Despite possessing a breathtaking batting line-up – consisting of Chris Gayle, Virat Kohli and de Villiers – Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) had failed to reach the pinnacle of the IPL. In fact, between 2012-14, they had even failed to reach the playoffs. In 2015, they finished in the top four during the league stage before going out to Chennai Super Kings (CSK) in Qualifier 2.
In 2016, in their first seven matches, the Royal Challengers won only two and it seemed like they’d miss out on the playoffs. Nearly every game from thereon in was a must-win, and inspired by some extraterrestrial batting from Kohli and de Villiers, they managed to come out victorious in six out of their final seven matches in the league.
While Kohli had broken the records for most runs and most centuries in an IPL season, de Villiers was the Player of the Match in three of RCB’s league stage wins. Their most extraordinary batting performances together came when both notched up centuries against Gujarat Lions during a league match at the M Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bengaluru on 14 May 2016.
10 days later, the two sides would meet once again at the same ground. After finishing the league stage occupying the top two spots, they faced off in Qualifier 1 – with the winner of the match directly entering the final and the losing team still having a shot at making the grand finale via Qualifier 2 where they’d face the winner of the Eliminator (third vs fourth from the league).
With RCB’s strength lying in their batting, captain Kohli had little hesitation in deciding to bowl first. The M Chinnaswamy Stadium, with its short boundaries, is considered as a paradise for batters and there were stats to back that up. During the league stage of IPL 2016, the Bengaluru stadium was the venue which had the highest run-rate (9.6) and batting average (35.3).
This match, though, went in a different direction. The pitch had something in it for the bowlers and it could be seen early on as the Lions lost their top three – Brendon McCullum, Aaron Finch and captain Suresh Raina – within the first four overs. While spinner Iqbal Abdulla accounted for the wickets of the openers, Raina was dismissed off a bouncer – a perennial weakness for the World Cup-winning Indian batsman – by Shane Watson.
Dwayne Smith and former RCB wicketkeeper-batsman Dinesh Karthik began a fightback for the hosts, with the duo stitching together an 85-run partnership for the fourth wicket. While Karthik struggled to step on the accelerator during his knock, it seemed like Smith was batting on a different pitch.
The West Indian took the attack to the RCB bowling and his approach yielded rewards. From 41 deliveries, he scored 73 in an innings which had five fours and six sixes. Eklavya Dwivedi, who was playing his first IPL knock, and Dhawal Kulkarni’s boundary-hitting towards the end propelled Gujarat to 158 before they were bowled out on the final delivery of the innings. Watson was the pick of the bowlers for RCB, taking four wickets for 29 runs from his quota of four overs.
Despite the pitch not being what was usually on offer at the M Chinnaswamy Stadium, a target of 159 was surely going to be a cakewalk for a batting line-up that was as mighty as the one RCB possessed? In addition to Gayle, Kohli and de Villiers, the Bengaluru-based franchise also had rising Indian star KL Rahul and a two-time IPL MVP (Most Valuable Player) in Watson.
Kulkarni had other ideas. A magnificent new-ball spell from the medium-pacer reduced RCB to 25/3. Kohli, who was at the zenith of his powers, was dismissed for a duck. So was Rahul, with Gayle heading back to the pavilion after scoring just nine. It was soon Ravindra Jadeja’s turn to get among the wickets as he dismissed Watson for one. And the procession followed with Kulkarni dismissing Sachin Baby for a duck in the sixth over.
At the end of the Powerplay, the home side were in tatters. The score read 31/5, with Kulkarni accounting for four of those wickets. But Bangalore had hope in the form of de Villiers who was still at the crease. The first bit of momentum that came RCB’s way during their innings, though, came via Stuart Binny.
Binny, playing on his home ground, took on Shadab Jakati in the ninth over. Two fours and a six off consecutive deliveries gave hope to the thousands of RCB fans who had flocked the stadium. An over later though, came another blow. Binny was adjudged leg-before-wicket, much to Kohli’s dismay on the sidelines. The decision review system (DRS) wasn’t in use in the IPL at the time, so the call stayed. 10 overs done, Royal Challengers Bangalore 70/6.
Abdulla was the next batsman in and while he was predominantly picked as a bowler in the team, he had a solid batting record in domestic cricket. And, of course, de Villiers was still there at the other end. The odds were stacked against RCB, but there was still fight left in them.
In the four overs that followed, de Villiers and Abdulla steadied the ship, making sure that no more wickets fell. At the end of the 14th over, they needed 63 runs from 36 balls. The required run-rate was not too steep, but de Villiers’ wicket at this point would in all likeliness seal the match for Gujarat.
Then came the two overs that would turn the match on its head. Jakati had been expensive in his first two overs, so Raina decided to give the ball to Smith who had been Gujarat’s star with the bat earlier in the day. De Villiers sensed an opening here and the four and six he hit off the third and fourth deliveries of the over respectively changed the momentum of the game, and the match went in only one direction after that.
Raina needed to find one more over from Jakati and he decided to give the left-arm spinner the 16th. This turned out to be a huge mistake in hindsight. Overs 15 and 16 yielded 14 and 16 runs respectively, and while de Villiers was in his zone, Abdulla had changed gears too, hitting Jakati for a six. Suddenly, RCB needed just 33 to win from the final four overs.
Boundaries continued to flow and Abdulla’s three consecutive fours against Dwayne Bravo in the 18th over took RCB to the doorstep of victory. While de Villiers was the talk of the town, Abdulla had put on a superb all-round performance: two wickets, followed by an unbeaten 33. It was fitting then that he hit the winning runs to spark off wild celebrations.
While de Villiers has played countless memorable knocks in the IPL over the years, this was special in its own way. 79 not out off 47 deliveries on a tough pitch in a playoff match – it was a calculated innings and despite the loss of so many wickets around him, he never allowed the required run-rate to disappear beyond his reach.
“That ends the debate who is the best. I bow down to the big man [de Villiers]. Come the big game, AB stands up. One of the best knocks under pressure. Really happy for him," said Kohli after the match. It was one modern-day great acknowledging another.
Sunrisers Hyderabad (SRH) booked a place in the final after defeating Kolkata Knight Riders in the Eliminator and then Gujarat in Qualifier 2.
In the final, for the third time in as many attempts, RCB came up short. Chasing 209, they looked to be in command with Gayle and Kohli both notching up fifties and adding a 114-run opening stand. But some poor batting from the hosts and disciplined bowling from SRH saw David Warner’s side triumph by eight runs. De Villiers didn’t add to his heroics from a few days earlier as he was dismissed by left-arm spinner Bipul Sharma for only five.
To date, an IPL title continues to elude the Royal Challengers. But the memories of the 2016 IPL Qualifier will forever be cherished by every RCB fan who witnessed it.