As AB de Villiers walked out to bat during a warm-up match against Mumbai Cricket Association (MCA) XI at the Brabourne Stadium in Mumbai on Tuesday, the 100-odd spectators gave him a loud and cheerful reception.
By now, De Villiers would have become familiar with such recognition, from much larger crowds, across the country, thanks to his exploits in the Indian Premier League (IPL). It’s safe to say he is the most liked outsider and that was evident during South Africa’s recent tour of India.
Another familiarity for him was his batting position: No 4. After dabbling as an opener since the start of last year, it seems De Villiers and the Proteas think-tank have zeroed in on No 4 being the best position for the dynamic batsman.
It will provide multiple benefits for South Africa. It will shore up their middle order, give them a perfect finisher and most important of them will be his ability to play spin compared to his compatriots in that slot.
Playing for the first time after a couple of weeks off due to a shoulder injury, De Villiers looked fit as a fiddle and displayed the gamut of shots he possesses. There were lap sweeps off pacers, reverse sweeps, the classical drives that bisected the field with pinpoint accuracy and the hoicks over midwicket among others.
He didn’t even spare compatriot Imran Tahir, who turned out for the MCA XI. The idea behind the move, according to their spin bowling coach Claude Henderson, was to give their batsmen the experience of facing quality spinners.
The reasoning behind De Villiers batting up the order was to maximise his impact, letting him play as many deliveries as possible. However, barring a couple of swashbuckling half centuries in his nine knocks as opener, de Villiers hasn’t had much of an impact there.
As an opener, he is facing just 18 balls per innings so that’s not solving the South African purpose of him spending more time at the crease. At No 4, he averages 17 balls but his impact down the order has been much greater, especially in the death overs.
At Royal Challengers Bangalore in the IPL, where he is used as a finisher, his average strike rate is above 164, over the last four seasons. In contrast, his international strike rate is 128.
De Villiers at No 4 will allow Quinton de Kock to open the innings with Hashim Alma, as they did on Tuesday. De Kock’s inclusion will also relieve De Villiers from the taxing duty of wicket-keeping, thereby enabling him to focus solely on his batting.
It remains to be seen, however, if South Africa will stick to the template, but given his familiarity with the conditions in India it looks to be the right way forward for them.