AB de Villiers had never experienced it in 211 previous One-Day International innings. Virat Kohli had gone 43 matches in ICC tournaments – including the World Twenty20s – without tasting it. Then, within a day of each other, both men had differing first brushes with the zero. For de Villiers, it was the first first-baller in his ODI career. For Kohli, it was the first duck in an ICC tournament.
That both took so long coming, speaks of course of the quality the two men possess. De Villiers has been playing ODIs since 2005. Kohli has played in two World Cups and three World T20s and is in his third Champions Trophy.
The zeroes gave a reminder about their mortality, but come Sunday (June 11), they will need to don their immortality cloaks. Only one out of India or South Africa will make it to the Champions Trophy 2017 semifinals, barring a catastrophically wrong reading of the weather, so only one man will live to fight another day.
And though the zeroes were unexpected, both men had come into this tournament on the back of a poor Indian Premier League personally, and a disastrous one for their team, Royal Challengers Bangalore. But the two men who both refer to each other as “the best batsman in the world”, were expected to stay true to that mantle in the Champions Trophy. Kohli has at least a stunning 81 not out against Pakistan to his name, an innings of two halves where he looked scratchy at the start and then exploded in a blaze of Kohli-ness. De Villiers has 4 and 0 so far, though he made 124 runs while being dismissed twice in the three ODIs against England just before the Champions Trophy.
But while their travails are not exact mirror images of each other, their thoughts about each other certainly seemed to be.
De Villiers has found his form being questioned. It’s a phase that Kohli has gone through, and he had words of comfort for his friend and rival. “I actually empathise with him. I go through this a lot, as well,” said Kohli with a wry smile. “When you have set standards for yourself and then people get shocked. You know, he’s by far the most committed cricketer I’ve ever seen around, and the reason for that is he is trying to do something extra for his team. That’s the kind of character he’s always been.
“So, yeah, I’m not … I wouldn’t say I’m shocked. I know AB quite well, so I know the reason behind, you know, his mindset of playing like that. But at the same time, he can come out and when he’s in the right frame of mind and it’s his day and he’s in the mood, then it doesn’t matter what he’s done in the past games or how many runs he’s scored or not scored. If he decides to play the way only he can, you know you have to find a way to get him out pretty quickly. So yes, we’ll look to stop not only him but all their batsmen. I think they are a quality side and you need to respect every batsman equally.”
De Villiers, for his part, was emphatic that he would use every resource at his disposal to get Kohli early. Uncannily, he almost echoed Kohli’s thoughts on himself. “My take on him is quite simple, really. He’s a world-class player. He’s a top-class player. He’s difficult to stop when he gets going,” said de Villiers. “So our plans will be around trying to unsettle him early on in his innings, like any other world-class batter, really. If you don’t get them out early, they can do some damage. He just does it really well when he gets going. He can really hurt you, hurt your bowling attack and take the game away from you.
“I know him really well,” continued de Villiers, and if you closed your eyes you could just imagine that it was Kohli speaking from a few minutes ago. “We’ve played together quite a few years at Bangalore. I respect him even more off the field. Just a good guy with a good heart. I love the way that he plays cricket. He’s very competitive. He always likes to come out on top. That’s the kind of approach that I also have with my cricket. I like to compete and try and contribute in order for the team to win. I have a lot of respect for Virat, like I said, on and off the field.”
You can almost picture them before the game, swapping notes on the rare feeling of getting a duck, and then having a bet and a furious competition as to which one would hurt the other’s team more to make up for it.
De Villiers might be the more desperate to win, given South Africa’s hunger for an ICC trophy after countless near-misses. Kohli on the other hand, doesn’t know what not being desperate to win feels like, and he needs team success at this point particularly, given the swirl of controversy around the captain-coach relationship that this tournament started and the fact that a decision on who India’s next coach will be should be taken soon.
The ‘best batsman in the world’ quips might ring true one more time, except that it will be two of the best, each vying to better the other, and in all probability, each still according the other that title.