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Deep Point: 'Some of the world's greatest players watched his sessions in awe'

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Expert
24th November, 2021
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After AB de Villiers announced his retirement from all forms of cricket last week, Trent Woodhill has outlined what made the South African champion so great.

I feel very privileged to have had seven IPL campaigns with AB de Villiers. We first worked together at the Delhi Daredevils (now Capitals) and then at Royal Challengers Bangalore.

Some of the most rewarding times I’ve had in cricket were throwing balls to AB for anywhere between 10 and 40 minutes pre-training sessions for RCB. It made any sacrifices I was making worthwhile.

I’d see some of the greatest cricketers in the world, on our team or against us, stop and watch those sessions in awe when they could.

In my opinion, AB is the greatest ODI player of all time. And when it comes to the best-ever ball-strikers, you’ve got to compare him to West Indian legend Sir Viv Richards.

On his day, Viv did things that no one else before him could do against a white ball. If you like, that mantle then went to Brian Lara and then AB.

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Rohit Sharma is the new ball-striking king for now, though the heir to his throne is Jos Buttler.

I can vividly remember a century AB scored in the 2009 IPL against Chennai at Durban. He brought up his fifty in the 17th over and finished unbeaten on 105 from 54 balls.

Then there was the 133 not out he got for Bangalore against Mumbai in 2015. Watching at the time, I thought, ‘My God, this is just amazing’.

You’re sitting in the team dugout, trying to be professional, but find the emotion taking over and you become part of the crowd.

The brilliance of someone like AB or Viv Richards is you become so supportive of them that you forget which side you’re on. You don’t want it to end because of how clean the ball-striking is and their ability to take games away.

I think many people assume that because AB was such an outrageously skilful 360-degree batter he would have routinely practised ramps, reserve sweeps, laps and the like.

But that was very rare in our sessions where he mostly played in the V.

He would tell me what he was trying to do: hit the ball as late as possible and transfer his weight through the ball as late as possible, keeping his head steady and low.

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That would give him maximum power and optimal ball contact.

When he was questioning a part of his game, he had a few go-to drills.

If he felt he wasn’t watching the ball in matches, he’d often use a single stump at training and spend five minutes making sure he was hitting the middle as often as possible.

There’d be other occasions he’d feel like he was early on the ball. He would then exaggerate his back-lift to make it as high as possible so he’d be late on the ball.

AB de Villiers

AB de Villiers of South Africa. (AAP Image/ Joe Castro)

And if he thought he was moving his feet too much, he’d look at transferring his weight to hit the balls I threw without any footwork at all.

After that, he would have 10 minutes of ball-striking and it was during these periods that a crowd would haveten gather around to watch him bat.

Whenever he faced bowlers, he would do the same thing. He’d just try to work on his own game rather than trying to get into a competition.

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There’d sometimes be five, 10 sessions in a row where I wouldn’t need to say anything to AB because it was just perfection.

I made sure I never got in the way of his sessions. Occasionally, I’d notice something that he wanted to watch for and remind him that he was a bit upright. He’d reflect on that, get lower and usually hit the next ball 10 rows deep.

Working with guys like AB made me a better coach. When I joined the IPL, I was pretty raw and I had self-doubt around not having played first-class cricket let alone international cricket.

But AB and others like Virender Sehwag and Kevin Pietersen made me feel comfortable. The superstars were great at communicating and told you exactly what they needed.

AB had a burning competitiveness that was hidden by absolute humbleness.

A great example of that is when we’d have batting meetings and talk about a player we wanted to target; someone who might have been the fifth or sixth bowler in the opposition and it was like, ‘This guy has got to go for 40 off his four overs’.

But AB would still find the danger in that bowler. That’s partly because of his humbleness but also because he didn’t want miss to out on anything by not paying that bowler respect.

Where other batters would become overconfident and make a mistake, AB’s strength was not only his technique but his ability to stay focused on that next ball.

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I’ve been in teams where I’ve had to prepare against him, whether it was New Zealand or when I was at Delhi and he was at Bangalore, and it was just a nightmare.

He was so good – you’d have to be right on your game. You had to get him early. If you didn’t then you were screwed!

New Test captain won’t go it alone

Since the days of Ian and Greg Chappell, the power base of the captain has diminished.

Steve Waugh was really good. He was my favourite captain growing up watching because you could tell there was a lot of input from other players and John Buchanan as coach.

The relationship between Buchanan and Waugh highlighted the need for an off-field team to dig deeper for things that can help the on-field situation.

Your captain now has a lot more support than they did back in the day.

Whoever the new Test captain is – if it’s Steven Smith, Marnus Labuschagne or Pat Cummins – they’re going to be well-supported by the specialist coaches and also the head coach.

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But not only that, they’ll be encouraged by the senior players as well.

I don’t think being a bowler should count against Pat. He’s incredibly grounded and has the ability to ask a question if he’s not sure about something.

I’ve known Pat for about 12 years and been lucky enough to do a bit of batting coaching with him. He is an immensely impressive human who leads regardless of what discipline he’s in.

Pat Cummins of Australia celebrates

Pat Cummins (Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

Whether he’s bowling or batting, he’s going to have plans that flow really naturally and if he gets stuck he’s going to ask questions of people like Steven and David, the other bowlers or the coaches on the sideline.

Test cricket is slow as well now. It’s rare that you bowl 90 overs in a day and there are plenty of break periods where you can have a moment to take time out.

If Pat gets the job, I have no doubt he’ll be a success at it because he’s been a success at everything else he’s done in life. Why would this be any different?

Thanks for the questions last week – I’ve answered a handful below.

Q: How do you adapt your coaching style on technique when players seem to have such a wide range of idiosyncrasies? – matth

I’ve sort of made a living out of players that are unorthodox. I get frustrated when I hear old-school commentary and coaches talking about, ‘Oh, he’s got a very orthodox technique’.

What’s really evident about all the best players in the world is they have an optimal ball-striking contact. What I mean by that is that someone like Aaron Finch will make contact slightly further in front than Steve Smith.

What I try to do, regardless of a batter’s grip, their stance, their back-swing, is figure out what optimal contact means when they’re feeling good about the game – and then I can expand on that.

That’s just figuring out where their weight transfer is and what it looks like when they feel good. We look at some videos of that, train that, and when it feels good we can expand the consistency and increase the balls that are like that rather than trying to change technique.

Do you believe that white-ball form usually translates to red-ball form, and what evidence (or metric) do you use to judge this? – Sideline Commentator

Well, we saw George Bailey go from dominating as a T20 and a one-day player for Australia to making his Test debut in the 2013-14 Ashes series.

It’s an awkward one, because you can find many examples where it hasn’t worked. I think there’s no reason for it not to work because, if you go back to the way AB de Villiers trained, he would prepare like that for Test cricket as well.

And likewise, someone like David Warner is adept at going from white-ball to red-ball.

We saw when he dominated Sri Lanka in T20s 2019 and then had the Test series of his life against Pakistan including a triple-century.

It can also come down to surfaces. Glenn Maxwell was picked to play Test cricket in India based on his ability to score runs on those surfaces.

Selectors will look at a player’s ability to transfer from white to red on a particular surface or if the opposition bowling matches up.

Q: Have you worked much with Usman Khawaja? What do you make of his form and selection for the Ashes squad? – Sideline Commentator

I worked with Usman a lot when he was younger at New South Wales. He was part of the age-bracket that included Steve Smith, David Warner and Phillip Hughes.

Usman Khawaja plays a shot against Pakistan

(AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)

Usman is such a talented ball-striker. His Test record in Australia is really, really good. I think he has an extreme case to be picked for the Ashes based on that and his Sheffield Shield form for the past couple of years.

What he’s done overseas is irrelevant because he’s going to have five Tests in Australia if selected. I don’t see why, on a case-by-case basis, that you wouldn’t pick Usman.

Q: What did you and Dave Warner try to adjust on the 2019 Ashes tour? – Paul

I wasn’t part of that tour; I was working with the ECB then.

Myself and the coaches probably had some differences on how David was going to succeed there.

When he came back from that trip, we got together and worked hard on trying to hurt the scoreboard, not protect it. And that’s just a mindset.

When David is looking to score runs, that’s when he bats a long time as well rather than just trying not to get out.

Q: You said white ball players like to feel bat on ball, but in four and five-day day cricket, that can be completely the wrong approach depending on match circumstances. How do they curb that desire to hit the ball, when leaving over after over might be the right course of action? – Paul

I don’t tell my players to curb their natural instincts. But when I talk about aggression, it’s not an excuse for recklessness.

Once again, it comes back to identifying when a player makes the best contact with the ball. In David’s case, it’s when he’s aggressive.

A natural ball-striker needs to feel they can hit every ball. If they do, they’re also in a position to let the ball go. That’s the beauty of it.

In a defensive mindset, batters tend to play out in front of their body, make early decisions and commit to a ball that hasn’t finished swinging or seaming.

David Warner

(AAP Image/David Mariuz)

In my sessions with David, he’ll still leave the ball a lot when I’m using a red ball, but he’ll do it late. That allows him to identify where the danger lies.

Q: How do you and the batsman you’re working with learn patience? – Paul

It’s a good question. It’s almost the goldfish mentality – if a batter can let the previous ball go from their mind and have a next-ball focus, they’re only committing to one ball.

What sets players like Marnus Labuschagne, Steve Smith, Joe Root and Kane Williamson apart is their next-ball focus is so good that, to them, their innings is only one ball at a time.

It might sound like a cliché, but that’s why you want players to work through their little idiosyncrasies when they practice as well, so they get used to feeling what’s needed between balls.

I’ll make sure that in my sessions there’s plenty of time between each throw or dog stick so they can regather, let go, assess what’s happened, identify any threats and move on to the next ball.

To me, that’s what encapsulates patience. When a commentator says a player has played a loose shot, it’s usually because they’re feeling bowling pressure, scoreboard pressure, dressing-room pressure and pressure from themselves to replicate.

That’s when they might try to get ahead of the scoreboard, try to get to 20 really quickly to feel comfortable at the crease.

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Kane Williamson has the same mindset as AB de Villiers – there’s always a threat from the bowler and that’s good because it keeps him on his toes.

Kane is always negotiating the next ball with as much of his concentration as possible because he wants to negate any threats.

He’s quite calm – but he’s calm because he knows that at any stage he can get out and wants to do everything to make sure it doesn’t happen the next ball. And then it starts again.

If you have any questions for next week’s edition, please leave a comment.

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