When AB de Villiers announced his shock retirement from international cricket, franchise mate, Virat Kohli had an emotional tweet for him. One sentence in the tweet perhaps sums up the maverick that Abraham Benjamin de Villiers was.
“You’ve changed the way batting was seen in the time you’ve played international cricket”
Sure, we have a closed-knit group of recluses who detest the cult status fans have bestowed upon de Villiers, but there’s no denying what he was, what he turned into, what he could have been, and what he did to change the game.
Let’s not talk about his pliable efforts to stop time in a Test match alongside his school mate at Adelaide. Let’s also not talk about the 31-ball century or the 66-ball 162*. Let’s talk about ODIs, the format he most had an impact on, but not about the obvious.
The transformation from a school prodigy to a game-changing generational player is one which not many players nail down. Ask Unmukt Chand or Wayne Parnell or the countless school cricket heroes who wandered off into oblivion.
But de Villiers knew what he had and what he could become. In his autobiography, de Villiers states, that he decided around 2008 that he “wasn’t going to be enough for me to be just another run-of-the-mill international batsman with an average in the mid 30s”. He promised to himself to become the best batsman in the world, a promise he kept true to.
Perhaps what spurred this mindset was the 2007 World Cup – an event where he cracked his maiden ODI hundred while batting on one leg; but also a forgettable tournament considering that he made four ducks in that World Cup.
That “run-of-the-mill” average, inconsistent batsman wasn’t what de Villiers was going to become. By 2014, his ODI batting average was not only over 50 but had reached a point from where it wouldn’t go below the 50-run mark.
(Cumulative average is the player’s career batting average after each game. The X-axis in the graph represents each innings the batsman batted)
Arguably, 2015 was when de Villiers hit the peak of his freakish talent. The scoops and laps kissed the surface of his bat and soared into the stands. The ball magically turned into gulab jamun on impact with the sweet spot of his bat. He danced at the crease, but boy wasn’t it beautiful! The balance he had at the crease was breathtaking, enviable and anyone who argued about his stature as the world’s best batsman at that point was probably on a heavy dose of weed.
Or wait, maybe not. Virat Kohli had crossed the 20-run mark for ODI hundreds in 2014 and by 2015, he had completed two years of consistently averaging 50 or more. If someone had told that Kohli was going to maintain the bar over 50 until 2020 after his less than convincing 2015 – an average of 36.64 and a strike rate of 80.6 including 2 hundreds – you wouldn’t have coped too much stick for scoffing.
Yet, that’s exactly what Kohli did. No, he actually did better. From a brash, cocky youth, Kohli turned into a man, one that even the none-fearing Aussies would dread. Kohli is constantly in your face. There is no escaping him for a team facing India. He ensured that beating India meant felling the King. It was his Kingdom, his game, his rules.
Kohli knew exactly how he wanted to bat and lead the side. He isn’t a natural leader. He makes tactical blunders. He makes head-scratching selections. But he is a leader of men alright. Kohli injected his new-found discipline into team India, making them all about energy, passion, exuberance and vibrancy in a very likeable fashion. An Indian Punter if you will.
When de Villiers and Kohli joined hands at Royal Challengers Bangalore, the very same franchise that opened with Wasim Jaffer and Rahul Dravid in the first ever IPL game, sparks flew. The two were always going to hit it off. Their love for the game is unparalleled; their skills unearthly; their camaraderie captivating; their friendship coveted.
One morning at breakfast, de Villiers asked Kohli:
“How long do you think you’re going to keep playing?” Virat Kohli said, “I am going to play forever.”
If you have watched Kohli and his infectious on-field energy, you know that wasn’t a mere laid-back Sunday morning statement. Kohli lives cricket and his cover drive, which is wedding-saree-silk level, faces stiff competition from his inner drive.
It is this very mad passion for the game that makes de Villiers so fickle. His whole retirement-return saga is pure unwanted drama. But he is just so bloody good that you cannot but want him back if you are a lover of the game. De Villiers won’t be playing forever. In fact, it is difficult to digest that he last played international cricket two years back. But, like Kohli, he has left an indelible mark on the game.
In the history of ODIs, only two batsmen have an average of over 50 and a strike rate over 90 (keeping a basic filter of 1000 ODI career runs). You guessed who.
de Villiers went one step ahead. His career strike rate, just like all of his 25 ODI hundreds that have come at over a run-a-ball, is frenetic at over 100. In the 49-year history of One Day International cricket involving 2611 players, only one strikes at over 100 and averages over 50. De Villiers is a modern-day demi-god who just can’t be seen without his unearthly prowess. If 2015 was his peak, the period after that was in no way less good. The peak just flattened out.
Since the 2015 World Cup, de Villiers averages over 52.8 and strikes at a rate of 111.9. Virat Kohli, whose earthly skills, are compensated by his rigorous work ethic, touched the zenith in this period. He isn’t just the highest run-scorer in ODIs since the 2015 World Cup by over 400 runs, but also averages a staggering 73 while striking at nearly run-a-ball (98.0).
It is impossible to separate this duo. There’s no discussion of the best ODI batsmen ever without a mention of these two names. While one carried a nation by lifting up his average mates, the other rewrote the purple patch reference in cricket. Kohli has been at the peak of his powers for so long that the patch has turned into a vastness that stretches into the horizon and beyond.
The cult status the two have among fans is understandable. But can they be pit against each other in a one-on-one face-off to pinpoint the better batsman in a format that the two have virtually owned?
To understand why this is seemingly impossible, it is imperative to understand the role the two have – or in de Villiers’ case, had – in their respective teams. Kohli has batted for a large chunk of his ODI career at the all-important no.3 position. In contrast, de Villiers went from being an opener to a middle-order batsman who would stay on and finish games.
Kohli had a strong support cast right through his career. From the MS Dhoni cushion he had behind him to the Rohit Sharma phenomenon above, Kohli was mostly sandwiched between two world-class ODI batsmen truly capable of putting together a decent claim to the title of best ever ODI batsman. The average team runs at Kohli’s entry to the wicket is lower than de Villiers’, understandable given their batting positions. Kohli also faces more balls on an average in an innings. His second-innings prowess, one so well established that we won’t bother digging into it, is second to none while de Villiers was mostly just consistent across innings.
The era the two batsmen played in mostly merges. Yet, trends in the game change so fast that we will use their respective periods to analyse their performance against that of their peers. De Villiers enjoyed the strong support of Hashim Amla right through his career and the two have had some outstanding partnerships in the format.
But it is said de Villiers did not have the luxury of a stable batting line-up around him a lot of times. This is perhaps explained by comparing his stats to that of Proteas’ top seven batsmen in the same time frame as his career. The average difference is nearly 15. With the rest of the world, that bridge goes up to 20 and more. The chasm is almost identical for strike rate.
De Villiers isn’t often seen as a big scorer of hundreds but his frequency of making tons – one every 9th innings on an average – is way better than that of the rest of the top-order from his country and beyond in the same time frame.
Kohli took standing a notch above the rest even more seriously. His average difference with his mates is nearly 20 – proving that while he had support, he still stood way above his mates like the South African – while that with the rest of the world’s top-order is 25-plus. The Indian skipper loves making centuries. If 43 of them isn’t testimony enough, the rate of making them – every 6th innings – is an evident giveaway.
The fact that the average difference between India’s top 7 in Kohli’s career period (average of 40.4) and South Africa’s top 7 in de Villiers’ time (average of 38.87) is negligible shows the difference in support isn’t as big as it is made out to be. The frequency of hundreds is also incredible for the Indian no.3.
But, let’s not assume Kohli’s 43 hundreds make him a superior batsman to de Villiers. The 25 de Villiers hundreds came from a lower batting position and mostly by virtue of his ability to score incredibly quickly. Hell, he made a ton after walking in to bat in the 39th over of an ODI innings.
A look at the ease of scoring these tons gives an understanding about the environment around which these two greats made their hundreds in the format.
The table above shows three metrics. The frequency at which Kohli/de Villiers made centuries in ODIs, the frequency at which 100s were made in matches involving the player (could be from opposition player too) and the frequency of hundreds in the same time frame as the particular player’s career in matches not involving the player.
Now, Kohli makes a ton every 6th match on an average. But the frequency at which hundreds are made in India matches involving Kohli (every 19th innings) is much lower than the frequency of hundreds made in other matches (every 25th innings) in the same time frame. This virtually means batting and scoring big was easier in the matches involving India during Kohli’s career.
De Villiers, on the other hand, has made tons in a less conducive environment. The frequency of tons in matches involving and not involving de Villiers is almost similar. However, de Villiers did make a lot of his centuries when one other player (either from his own team or the opposition) made a ton in the same game. 47% of Kohli’s tons came in games where he was the only centurion.
The corresponding number for de Villiers is low at 28%. 56% of de Villiers’ centuries came in matches where one other player made a ton while in 16% of the tons, two further players made centuries in the same game.
Only 53% of Kohli’s hundreds were in matches where other batsmen also made tons. De Villiers on the other hand has made 62% of his centuries in such games. It shows that while Kohli does enjoy strong support – as peer averages earlier proved – his hundreds have mostly been standalone efforts. De Villiers, though, is more of an enforcer and has blasted his way to extraordinary tons mostly on wickets where hundred-making wasn’t exactly rare.
This is possibly where the primary difference between the two unblemished ODI greats lie. De Villiers is more of a fair weather batsman who changes the shape of a game. Kohli, meanwhile, sets the tone for a game and gives it its initial form, one that he possibly continuously modifies through the game.
A look at how the two fare when the team is in strife or going well shows Kohli to be a beast who can lift the team out of a hole. De Villiers, on the other hand, is brilliant at this too, but comes behind Kohli. The opposite is true when it comes to making an average team score incredible. De Villiers thrives in such situations much like when his record 31-ball century cane after a 247-run opening partnership between Rilee Rossouw and Hashim Amla. What could have ended up as a 350-run team total turned into 439 with de Villiers in the driving seat.
24 of Kohli’s 43 ODI tons have come when he walks to the crease before the 25-run mark has been crossed. His runs per innings in such matches is a delectable 56.85, the average an even better 67.07 (the large difference showing he remains not out in a lot of these games).
In ODIs where Kohli has walked in after the 100-run mark has been crossed, he has made just three tons, with a slightly disappointing runs per innings ratio of 37.26. de Villiers, meanwhile, flourishes in such situations. He averages a breathtaking 55.06, having made seven centuries in such games, mostly remaining unbeaten to see the team through till the end (17 not outs). He isn’t as effective when the team loses early wickets and even when the runs per innings is impressive at 45.83, de Villiers does not see the team through troubled waters often enough – 2 hundreds and 3 not outs in such games.
Both batsmen are a class apart from their batting contemporaries but a comparison of the two is really unfair given the different roles they assume to fit the nuances of their respective teams. Taking the stats at face value, without bringing into account the finer details that make the stats what they are, would be a farcical misinterpretation. At this point at least, impact-wise, the two are equally placed, yet in such diverse, parallel universes that a comparison will almost always end up being unfair.