What would happen to cricket if the Americans suddenly took to the game?
There might be a lot of India v USA matches for one thing, and Donald Trump might want to run for ICC president once he’s done mucking about in the White House. Hopefully, he won’t look at the Wankhede and Brabourne stadiums and decide it’s a waste of the most prime real estate, and it’s better to raze the grounds and erect Trump Towers there – while extolling the virtues of golf to various cricket boards.
On the positive side, there might be a few scholars with an analytical bent who would study the game’s numbers in depth. Like the official blog of the Harvard Sports Analytics Collective did, posing the question of which batsman was most dangerous the longer he survived. It was an interesting analysis even though it scratched the surface and didn’t go into deep-dive mode. It essentially classed batsmen by averages as a function of balls faced. That is, given Batsman A has faced X or more balls, what is his average? It starts with his career average at zero or more balls faced (since that includes every innings that a batsman plays that counts in his average), and moves upwards. Naturally, you expect that the further along you go, the higher the average. If I compute what the average is for Sachin Tendulkar when he has faced at least 20 balls or more, I would expect it to be higher than when he has faced at least one ball or more.
In innings’ where de Villiers has faced at least 40 balls, his average is a staggering 101.55. Curiously enough, his strike-rate is 104.29, which is not very far removed from his career figure of 100.25. It seems to suggest that de Villiers is quick off the blocks and maintains a good scoring rate throughout, before exploding later on. Crucially, once he has been in for a while – and the graph suggests 40 balls – he becomes next to impossible to dismiss, while chugging along at better than a run-a-ball.
The analysis looked at a smattering of certified greats. The Test match tables show that Steven Smith – as of right now – is the one who takes off the highest once set. The more balls he has faced, the higher his average tends to soar. Best get him out early. If he has faced about 55 balls, he will more often than not go on and get a century.
They have also done an analysis on ODIs. And it is here that you see the greatest deviation. The likes of Virat Kohli, Kane Williamson, Joe Root, Hashim Amla and Smith himself are fairly close together. And then there is AB de Villiers. Once he has faced 40 balls, his average just zooms up.
I did the math. In innings’ where de Villiers has faced at least 40 balls, his average is a staggering 101.55. Curiously enough, his strike-rate is 104.29, which is not very far removed from his career figure of 100.25. It seems to suggest that de Villiers is quick off the blocks and maintains a good scoring rate throughout, before exploding later on. Crucially, once he has been in for a while – and the graph suggests 40 balls – he becomes next to impossible to dismiss, while chugging along at better than a run-a-ball.
Fun fact: de Villiers has scored 104 or more 19 times in ODIs. Of those matches, South Africa have won 15 and lost only three. One match was rained out. So for South Africa to get a better than 80 percent chance of winning, de Villiers just needs to ensure he stays in for 40 balls.
Of course it’s not quite as simplistic as that, but broadly the simple enough analysis done by Harvard puts some numbers to what viewers just register as de Villiers entering ‘God mode’.
Does de Villiers, master purveyor of the politically correct quote while savvy enough to grasp intricacies in the game that very few might, know this? In the end, the quest for self-perfection is what gives every genius their thrust, and self-knowledge is the first step to self-perfection. All the greats know themselves, or at any rate, the part of their selves that are associated with their sport. They know it better than anyone else, even if they might not be able to analyse it, or word it, better than anyone else.
De Villiers, the ODI batsman, walked into the all-time great Hall of Fame a while ago. If he retires today, he will have 9319 runs at an average of 53.55 and a strike-rate of 100.25. Unheard of numbers. Even Kohli hasn’t matched them. I’m not sure if he slices and dices numbers this way, but surely there is an awareness of just what he can do to a white ball in a 50-over format.
But what about the red ball? What about in whites? What about over five days? The bald numbers say 8074 runs, 21 centuries, an average of 50.46. Enough to rank among the very best. Several of those runs have been exhilarating, several have come against the most testing bowling attacks. Several of those have also been exercises in self-denial that are the cricketing equivalent of ascetics taking to the Himalayas for meditation. The stroke-maker supreme has blocked and blocked and blocked because a Test needed to be saved. And he has saved them too.
De Villiers has the innings, the numbers, the thrill evoked from fans – but his Test career doesn’t look quite the end product. He is in the position of having all the tools to make a masterpiece, but having put the easel down when the finishing touch is needed. He hasn’t played Test cricket since January 2016. He said he wouldn’t do it for the whole of 2017, and is unsure if he will do it at all. He even said that he had considered giving it up altogether in 2016, but didn’t like the finality of that, and so gave himself a break. Whether the break will turn permanent, no one knows.
A few months ago, when Wisden India specifically asked him about scaling Mt. 10,000 in Test cricket, his reply was disarmingly disdainful. “I mean no disrespect to anyone who has ever achieved that – but it means absolutely zero to me to achieve 10,000 runs. I don’t care about that at all,” he has said.
The South Africans have moved on beyond him. Not quite as well as they would have liked, but you sense an acceptance of his absence more than a yearning for his presence. Faf du Plessis even said he “doesn’t expect it” – the ‘it’ being a de Villiers return to whites.
There is little doubt that a struggling South African batting line-up could do with a de Villiers coming in at No.5. But only if he is going to walk in regularly post his break. One player flitting in and out of the side due to factors other than form or injury is never a happy recipe for any team. Who knows, the break might have revitalised de Villiers too. Roger Federer, 36 years old yesterday, showed the value of a supreme artist taking a step back to forge several ahead. De Villiers – though he’s a Rafa Nadal fan – might well replicate that.
Unless of course, he knows that there is no habitat more naturally suited to him than 50-overs cricket, and decides that all his energies will go into raising the bar there. It will mean a great Test career has been stopped short of surging into the all-time great category. But it could also mean an all-time great ODI career is lifted to even more Olympian heights.