AB de Villiers stymied by rain when the world seemed to have conspired to give him the chance to take South Africa sailing into a first World Cup final. AB de Villiers being human enough to not find his touch immediately after a prolonged rain break and smash a century in the 30 balls that South Africa were given when they came out to bat again in the semifinal against New Zealand.
AB de Villiers being mortal – where did the ‘im’ drop off? – when he fumbled a run-out chance. AB de Villiers showing visible pain and naked emotion. As if he was one of us, the earth-bound who move through time and space without having control over either.
This wasn’t how it was supposed to end. He had been let-off – two fairly tough chances had the ball drop in no man’s land – and then got into that zone from which no bowling attack, no fielder, no tactically astute captain could hope to escape. But, then again, perhaps this was how it would pan out. After all, there is nothing linear about de Villiers, the cricketer.
Consider the absurdity of sweeping fast bowlers for six over fine leg while down on one knee. Reflect on the marvel of being in position to play about five different shots to five different parts of the ground to one delivery, and the sleight of hand that makes you feel he has somehow pulled off every shot to one ball. Think of the fielder who gives geometry lessons in angles of body and throw, and the batsman who demonstrates gymnastic ability by arching his back to glide the ball to third man.
Almost as if to add heft to the popular, ‘There’s nothing AB can’t do in cricket’, the man bowled a fair bit in the 2015 World Cup too. And picked up wickets. It’s a good thing he didn’t ask the umpires for their white coats. He’d have probably got every decision spot on and rendered the DRS debate moot.
But this isn’t about what AB de Villiers can do. You could fit that into a James Joyce novel and feel like you’ve barely skimmed the surface. This isn’t even about what AB de Villiers cannot do. You could fit that into a matchbox, with space left over. Without having removed the matchsticks.
This is about the infinitesimal moments in which de Villiers makes decision on a cricket field when he’s at the crease. There is a pause pregnant with a world of possibilities when time stands still for just one second. The bowler is at the release point, de Villiers still, even if in movement. The world ready to explode off his bat in the form of a cork and leather ball with halves sewn together.
It’s like a drop of water falling off a leaf. There is the quiet when it gathers at the edge and rolls off. There is one perfect moment when the droplet is a sphere. Then it falls. Where it hits the ground or how it splashes, no one can predict.
Scientists have a name for this sort of thing. They call it “the science of surprises, of the nonlinear and the unpredictable. It teaches us to expect the unexpected.”
Alright, so they were talking of Chaos Theory when they used that description. But if ever an esoteric scientific subject found realisation through the medium of a man, that subject is Chaos Theory and that man is de Villiers.
One of the principles of Chaos Theory is the famous Butterfly Effect: the said insect flapping its wings in Mexico can set in motion a chain of events that ultimately causes hurricanes across the Great Wall of China. In the cricket world inhabited by de Villiers, as innocuous an action as marking the run-up for a bowler could lead to hurricanes of a different kind. For de Villiers, the position of the seam could possibly cause a split-second change in decision on whether the ball goes over the cover fence or into the midwicket crowd.
It’s aptly named too. Who doesn’t feel a frisson at the sight of de Villiers walking out to bat, in whites, international or franchise colours?
The Butterfly Effect encapsulates the unpredictability and the flow between order and disorder in nature. You can’t know what will happen if changes as minute can cause upheavals as massive. Kind of like how bowlers must feel when bowling to de Villiers: disorder turns to order and back again in the blink of an eye. If you saw any other batsman moving around the crease as much, attempting shots that couldn’t even be described as being ‘manufactured’, and being as seemingly off-balance when trying to connect, ‘disorderly’ would be the least of adjectives used to describe him. And yet, de Villiers does all that but still finds the stillness, the balance, the perfect order in which to execute the impossible.
For the absolute purity in the act of bat meeting ball, it’s a brand of violence even Mahatma Gandhi could get on board with.
Chaos, however, has one more quality. It has a fractal nature. A never-ending, self-similar pattern that is replicated across scales. It wasn’t quite never-ending, but it did get repeated across scales when de Villiers, the batsman and master destroyer, was as much a cipher of the elements as the ball is when the hapless bowler fronts up to de Villiers.
At the start of his run-up, the bowler likely has a clear idea of what he needs to do. He runs in steadily, builds and gathers momentum, until he’s ready to launch when arriving at the crease. But once the ball is released, Chaos Theory takes over. No one knows what outcome will result. It could depend on as miniscule a thing as the twitch of a muscle in the right leg that drags it so subtly across. Or an event as major as de Villiers charging down the track. The ball may result in a wicket or it may disappear. You’ll know only after the event.
Against New Zealand, de Villiers had a clear idea of what was needed when he walked in. He settled down, and hit his stride. He had gathered momentum and was about to launch. But like a cosmic fractal joke, Chaos Theory took over for him too. The clouds came, bringing rain, an interruption, a reduction in overs and what turned out to be an irreparable loss of flow. A butterfly flapping its wings somewhere could have maybe delayed rain by an hour. Heck, an AB de Villiers swing of the bat in a slightly different direction could well have done that. But events were set in motion and while South Africa were beaten by New Zealand, perhaps de Villiers was defeated by chaos.
It wasn’t how it was meant to be. The best batsman of his generation seemed destined to break the obnoxious ‘chokers’ tag that still haunts his team by seizing the moment on the big day. But, then, nothing is as it is meant to be. At one moment, de Villiers is the man who can bend the laws of nature to his will. At another, he was the unbreakable man that nature bent to its will.
Perhaps a World Cup winner’s medal will come. He’s still only 31. Dale Steyn is the same age. England 2019 could be a glorious swansong. It probably won’t come off a straightforward path though. Maybe South Africa will have to initiate some non-linear chaos of their own, and explode into the final stages before they can get caught up in the moment.
But if it doesn’t, it will still be okay. AB de Villiers is a human with the ability to do the superhuman. Neither butterflies flapping wings, nor bowlers, nor the elements can change that.