It’s a frequent point of debate as to what the point of something as ultimately pointless as sport actually is. Many suggestions are pretty unhelpful: either vague concepts like “teamwork” (which, if you haven’t grasped by about the age of four, will make life pretty challenging once the time for sharing around the fines in those university hall disciplinary hearings years later arrives) or Trump-esque bluster about a “winning mentality” and “bouncing back” (translation: win good, lose bad). All well and good, but these hardly seem unique to sport. Surely there’s something else?
At first glance, cricket seems an odd choice of sport to obsessively follow as I do in this day and age: “it’s boring”, and “nothing ever happens” are some of the more insightful barbs thrown at it. Like trying to win a girl’s heart by holding the door open for m’lady or buying the sufficient number of acres of land her dad required at the time, cricket appears an excessively conservative relic of a bygone era, and thus attempting to convert new fans seems pointless. Most people have better things to do and people to see than watch a sport as seemingly stuffy as cricket appears to be.
However, there’s one cricketer who I believe can not only drag the perception of cricket kicking and screaming into the 21st century, but completely change the way the entire sport is played: South African batting phenomenon “AB” de Villiers.
“With the complexion of that supply teacher you spent long afternoons lusting over and prayed would return, it’s easy to see the extra dimension to his popularity”
After debuting in 2004, de Villiers rose through the ranks to become the finest batsman in the country, and unarguably one of the finest in the world too. Runs have been piled on in all formats, but it is 50-over cricket where jaws have been most left dropped: over 8,000 runs at an average of 54.6 runs between dismissals, at a strike-rate of over 100 runs per 100 balls. (Non-cricket fans: those are freakishly good numbers, seriously.)
No team has been spared, no bowler’s figures unassaulted. Plus, feast your eyes on him: with the complexion of that supply teacher you spent long afternoons lusting over and prayed would return, it’s easy to see the extra dimension to his popularity. (My mancrush isn’t that big. Honest.)
Simply relaying the raw facts isn’t enough: they don’t begin to convey the revolutionary, awe-inspiring way in which de Villiers scores his runs, the remarkable range of strokes tearing up every coaching manual and making the game suddenly appear less entwined to its long-standing conventions than you might think.
Any hack can hit a six. Heck, if you gave me enough goes even I probably could, and my batting technique at its best resembles a grizzly bear trying to avoid directing his piss outside the toilet bowl. But it does a disservice to de Villiers to say he merely hits sixes, as if he’s limited to how he plays the shot by the nature of the delivery: he doesn’t just hit sixes, he places them, manipulates them to his idle pleasure, calculates and caresses them as easily as he brutalises them to the upper tier of awestruck onlookers.
Of course, it takes balls of granite to play in the way he does, since his shot selection is at times so unconventional there’s no way we could have begun to consider doing the same, and if it went wrong, he would look quite the fool. But he gets it right, time and time again.
“de Villers expands the scope for ways to play a delivery so much that all of a sudden there’s much less certainty at to what shot we’ll see”
Additionally, to understand the difficulty of playing shots with a reversed grip, imagine masturbating with your non-dominant hand: the lack of control is similar to what is normally experienced trying to bat in such a way.
It’s sheer madness just to describe, yet de Villiers simply retains his original stance, picks up the length seemingly instantaneously, rotates his hands around the bat handle and sends the ball sailing towards a part of the boundary where placing a fielder would hardly have been deemed necessary.
The extraordinary dexterity required to form this position, to play this shot to this delivery, makes it almost homoerotic to watch: it seems at times like he has a prosthetic nose or ears, as his hand-eye coordination and reaction times appear to be heightened to inhuman levels.
His career is littered with equally flamboyant strokes – sweeping wide, 90mph hip-high balls over long leg for six, flicking attempted yorkers past his shoulder, whilst almost flat on his face, into the top tier, and so on. It’ll come as no surprise to you that de Villiers excelled at numerous sports from a young age, and represented South Africa’s youth hockey and badminton teams: many of his shots, especially the grips involved, are obviously influenced by his success in these other disciplines.
One of the biggest turn-offs for cricket sceptics is the inherent predictability, especially in test matches: for the non-believer, watching the same types of shot being played to the same types of deliveries again and again for seven hours, can be as fascinating as the story from the creep chatting you up at the bar.
Players like de Villiers, however, expand the scope for ways to play a delivery so much that all of a sudden there’s much less certainty as to what shot we’ll see and thus what happens next: unpredictability is the lifeblood of sport, for without it there can be no excitement in what we’re seeing, and so anything that increases it is ideal. Balls that would once have simply been blocked will sail into the stands with increasing regularity. As more and more kids inevitably try and copy de Villiers, his skills will filter into all levels of cricket and a new game, one with the shackles of its reputation cast off and a world of possibilities open in every moment, will be born – and fans will flock to it.
De Villiers, then, demonstrates the real point of sport: watching the most jaw-dropping physical acts, things mere mortals couldn’t dream of doing, for moments of escape from our humdrum daily lives as we marvel how such things are even possible.
Sport often makes us angry, cry, get into petty arguments about how, say, Ronaldo’s away record is better than Messi’s, and you wonder why you invest so much time following this shit anyway. Then you experience the thrill and rush of admiration of watching a genius executing their craft perfectly, a de Villiers in full flight… And, suddenly, it all makes sense.
Image courtesy of webpakistani.com