AB de Villiers provides Lord’s with a World Cup encore to remember

Cricket

Middlesex 166 for 3 (de Villiers 88*) beat Essex 164 for 6 (ten Doeschate 74*, Helm 3-27) by seven wickets

“Me, I’m from the Wild West / Guess you’d call it Middlesex” sing The Rhythm Method on their debut album How Would You Know I Was Lonely? Tonight, AB de Villiers played the role of the gunslinging sheriff at Lord’s, with the middle of his bat the weapon of choice, as Middlesex cruised to a seven-wicket win in their Vitality Blast opener thanks to his 43-ball 88 not out.

On the same slow pitch that saw so few batsmen manage to time the ball in Sunday’s World Cup final, de Villiers took 15 balls to score his first 17 runs before launching a memorable assault on Essex’s misfiring attack in partnership with the more sedate Dawid Malan.

Essex had hatched a plan early to bowl spin at de Villiers, as so many sides successfully did in this year’s IPL. With Adam Zampa and Simon Harmer at their disposal, it had briefly seemed like a canny move as he struggled to find his rhythm early on.

Then, he flicked the switch – and how. Ravi Bopara’s cutter was whacked over extra cover for six; Harmer was launched ten rows back into the Mound Stand; Shane Snater’s drag-down was nailed high and mighty into the night sky.

The pick of the bunch came off Dan Lawrence, the part-timer entrusted with the 14th over just as de Villiers had put his right foot all the way to the floor.

He speared in an offbreak, hoping to cramp de Villiers for room; moments later, Lord’s fell into momentary silence, as the 28,000 sell-out collectively held its breath while the ball flew into the top tier of the Grandstand some 90 metres away.

Lawrence is a handy bowler on his day, who has had success at this ground in the past, but in such a situation was a lamb to the slaughter; if the unthinkable had happened and he had got the star man out, de Villiers would have been entitled to repeat that infamous W.G. Grace line: “They came to watch me bat, not you bowl.”

A six and a four off Harmer to finish the job meant 61 had come from his final 28 deliveries. He finished the night with six sixes – no other Middlesex batsman hit even one.

Statistically, de Villiers sits alongside a bunch of superstars in the top handful of T20 players; aesthetically, he is in a class of one. There is no finer combination of brute force and beauty than a de Villiers assault, and this innings will live long in the memory of those who witnessed it.

It was an innings several years in the making, too.

It is five years since Middlesex first talked about a deal with de Villiers, and they had a gentleman’s agreement in place by 2016. Several counties tried their utmost to sign him after his international retirement last year, with Northamptonshire reportedly pulling out all the stops in their bid to secure his signature, but Lord’s and London proved too great a pull to resist.

The Blast’s bizarre scheduling meant a single net at Merchant Taylor’s School was the only practice de Villiers had with his new team-mates before this game; his most recent innings was as long ago as May 5, long before the debacle of his World Cup will-he-won’t-he had come to light.

But this was not the innings of a man lacking match practice. Essex bowled too short, and played to his strengths, but that is the mark of the best players.

There is a reason that tennis players double-fault more when they face Roger Federer, and why golfers play worse when Tiger Woods is playing in the same tournament as them. It is the very spectre of de Villiers that throws his opponents off their game.

Things could have been so different. Essex’s total of 164 looked like an imposing total at the interval, not least after Ryan ten Doeschate had helped them add 88 in the final eight overs. And after Paul Stirling – having been dropped twice, once comically by Cameron Delport – and Nick Gubbins fell cheaply, they were in some sort of trouble at 39 for 2.

They needn’t have worried. De Villiers claimed afterwards that he didn’t feel like he was quite at his best, despite his brilliance; if he can reach that level when Middlesex travel to The Oval on Tuesday, it will be another night to remember.

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