Rillee Rossouw had just departed for his maiden ODI hundred. Having scored 128 runs from 115 balls in a new South African record stand of 247 runs, Rossouw would have had every right to feel that his would be the contribution that would be remembered at the conclusion of the match.
There were 11.3 overs left in South Africa’s innings as AB de Villiers walked to the crease. Hashim Amla was 114*, South Africa were looking set a score of well over 350 against a West Indies side that were short of wicket taking ideas. De Villiers had other ideas, 350 was nowhere near enough.
In-between innings Hashim Amla said that de Villiers said he would “have a look” for an over when he arrived at the crease. He then hit his first ball for four, driven down the ground with ease. He was on seven not out at the start of the 40th over. Andre Russell was the bowler. A single off the first ball gave us no clue what would come next. De Villiers, back on strike for the third ball of the over smashed the ball over mid-off for four. The next ball went for six, the one after for another four. It was to the last ball of Russell’s over that you started to realise that we were witnessing something special.
Russell bowled a ball that was a regulation delivery outside off stump at about 130kph. De Villiers shuffled outside his off stump, went down on one knee and smashed the ball for six. What the shot is called is open to debate. As he is the one that invented it perhaps it should be for de Villiers to come up with a moniker.
It wasn’t the only time he played the shot, he did it twice more. It wasn’t the only remarkable shot that he managed in his 44 ball stay in the middle, but it was the most striking. It was the signal that as long as de Villiers was at the crease there was only one place to be. Watching. There were records aplenty in this innings. De Villiers scored the fastest fifty in ODI cricket, beating the 17 ball half century that Sanath Jayasuriya managed in 1996, getting there one ball quicker. He scored the fastest hundred as well, but he beat that record much more emphatically.
The 37 ball hundred that Shahid Afridi managed in his first ODI innings was a record for 16 years. It was beaten by Corey Anderson just over a year ago when he hit a 36 ball ton against the West Indies. De Villiers got to his hundred off just 31 balls, not only the fastest international ton, but also the fastest hundred in the history of one day cricket. To put it in contest, the fastest ever T20 hundred came off 30 balls when Chris Gayle flayed the hapless Pune Warriors at theIPL.
De Villiers hit 16 sixes, equalling the record that Rohit Sharma achieved in his first ODI double hundred. He also hit nine fours giving him a total of 132 runs in boundaries, the fifth highest number of runs in boundaries ever scored in an ODI innings, and a ridiculous 88% of the runs de Villiers scored.
Cricket loves statistics, they are the life blood of the sport, everything has a column that it is chalked up under. While they are important, with innings such as those that de Villiers managed in
Johannesburg they do not tell the story. There is something visceral about that kind of hitting that statistics just can’t explain. As de Villiers launched ball after ball to the boundary you could only
stare in a childlike wonder. How is this kind of batting even possible? How can someone make it look so easy?
But that is Abraham Benjamin de Villiers. There seems to be little that he can’t do, and internet memes with exaggerated claims about his achievements in various sports regularly do the rounds.
What is certain is that he is a supremely gifted man with a ridiculous level of self-belief. Right now he is ranked the second best Test batsmen, he is top of the ODI charts and is a world class performer in Twenty20 cricket. Pound for pound, format by format, there is no better player than de Villiers.
His innings ended as he attempted yet another six. For the first time he didn’t quite time it and he was caught on the deep extra cover boundary. If the ball had carried he would have taken South Africa to the highest ODI total ever made, himself to the fastest ever 150 in ODIs and claimed the six hitting record as his own. He didn’t, but it doesn’t matter. No one that watched those 44 balls will ever forget them.
Hashim Amla was four runs ahead of de Villiers at the end of the innings. From a standing start he had almost overtaken a well set batsman that had a 114 run head start. In less than 12 overs.
Some will talk about flat pitches, weak bowling attacks and hitting sixes at altitude. That is missing the point. Yes, bats have got better. Yes, pitches have got flatter. Equipment has improved in every sport. Usain Bolt would not be able to run as fast without his space age shoes. In the time that blades have got thicker batsmen have also got stronger and fitter. In this innings Hashim Amla batted for 50 overs and hardly raised a sweat.
Not every pitch is as flat this one, not everyone is a spitting viper. The reason why cricket is so wonderful to watch is that the conditions in which it is played are so varied. Rather than trying to find a way to downgrade what we saw today, we should be revelling in it. Watching players like AB de Villiers is as good as it gets, enjoy it.