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Tim David, Baby AB, and All the Next Big Things

Ben Jones looks at the strange case of Mumbai’s much-hyped middle order.

***

Donald Draper sits in the corner of a smoky New York bar. He stubs out his cigarette, takes a long sip of his drink. As he returns the heavy glass tumbler to the counter top, he pauses. He stares at the client alongside him, a studious Sri Lankan cricket coach. 

“He’s not called Dewald Brevis.”

The glass is finally lowered to the counter, and it rests, empty.

“He’s called Baby AB.”

***

In the year leading up to the 2022 IPL auction, Tim David ruled T20. If you turned on the TV, David was in another country under another sun, hitting sixes and finishing matches. Across 2021 he cracked the format: 706 runs, strike rate 153, averaging 31. He floated up and down batting orders, smashing spin and pace with equal brutality.

Only one man (Mohammad Rizwan, himself on a career-best run of form) was able to match David’s performance in T20 cricket. As the auction rolled around a few months back, with Rizwan unable to take part in the IPL, David was arguably the hottest property on show.

Everyone wanted David. But as tends to be the way, Mumbai Indians got what they wanted. A quiet couple of days for them in Bangalore was headlined by the signing of Jofra Archer, the return of Ishan Kishan, and the arrival of the Singaporean for big money – 8.25cr, from Multan to Mumbai. Welcome to the IPL.

But 11 balls into his season, after two lean trips to the middle, David was dropped. Two games, two defeats, and Mumbai decided they had had enough. He was out. 

We aren’t going to spend too much time on why this was a mistake, because it’s rather obvious. Be it the need to overwhelm teams with the strongest possible batting order given Mumbai’s relatively sparse bowling options, the faltering form of the veteran Pollard, the obvious original intention to make this guy a starter indicated by his price tag – take your pick. Dip into his immense record against all bowling types, if you fancy. Fall back on the fact you should simply never be playing matches without your full complement of overseas. Treat yourself to some recent bias, and look at how Saturday night went.

We’ll also just underline the strength of David’s record, because his 2021 wasn’t a brief burst of form unattached to a greater body of work. At 26 years old, David has played 15 series or tournaments in his T20 career, and has recorded a positive ABI in 13 of them. The only negative tournaments on his CV are the 2021 IPL, where he played one game, and the 2022 IPL where he’s currently played three. As a T20 batter, he is yet to fail. 

What’s more, there’s no smoking gun in the camp, no issue yet to become public, no story behind the story. Quite simply, David was dropped.

In a vacuum of explanations, theories from the outside have come to the fore. Some onlookers have diagnosed David as being unable to play ‘quality spin’, a classic of the genre when it comes to critiquing overseas batters in the IPL. 36 off 19 against Rashid Khan (no dismissals), 35 off 24 (no dismissals against Sandeep Lamichhane, 23 off 19 (no dismissals) against Imran Tahir suggest the Singaporean does have the ability to play these bowlers. So does the fact that no spinner has dismissed David twice in T20 cricket. These judgements might be proved right in time, but they aren’t right yet. Standing under the midday sun and saying it’s dark doesn’t make you right at night.

No cricket is bigger than the IPL, and none in it bigger than Mumbai Indians, Goliath among Goliaths. But bigger than even them, is the power of hype. Because three months ago Tim David was the Next Big Thing; Mumbai have already moved onto the next Next Big Thing.

***

Dewald Brevis dominated the U-19 World Cup earlier this year, scoring 506 runs in just six matches. Dominating at age-group level is not unusual, but the degree of dominance the 18 year old managed was outrageous. As such, he’s been fast-tracked not only into an IPL squad, but into the Mumbai first XI, in essence as a direct replacement for David. 

While his campaign so far has been mixed (low scores are supported with a high strike rate), Brevis’ take down of Rahul Chahar against Punjab Kings was an emphatic arrival of a star, 28 runs in five balls offering a clear view of what this young man can do, and could do. That onslaught of picking up length, fast hands, and genuine power, is enough to sell any fanbase on the idea this boy is worth investing in.

The nickname helps as well. Quickly christened ‘Baby AB’, Brevis has attracted huge numbers of social media support, side-by-side videos comparing his technique to de Villiers’ all going viral during his World Cup campaign. Brevis’ avowed support of RCB, the endearingly brazen declaration of wanting to play not just IPL but for his team – it all plays into the sense of a youngster following in very specific footsteps, those of his hero. It doesn’t feel contrived. 

Yet the Madison Avenue gloss that comes with that nickname, and more importantly the comparison it perpetuates, is potent. It’s an easier sell to a fanbase the blank canvas potential of ‘Baby AB’ than simply an 18-year-old with nine T20 appearances to his name. It’s easier to sell the dream of the next AB de Villiers, than the reality of Tim David, a man who doesn’t play top level international cricket and whose biggest achievements have come in the leagues which the IPL institutionally – inherently – diminishes. 

Brevis may be a genius. He may even be a baby AB. But in 12 months time, Brevis might also have fallen by the wayside. It is easy to forget quite how rapid his rise has been, how loosely he exists in the global structure of the game. He may force his way into the South Africa side, and star at the World Cup, but without other gigs secured in T20 leagues worldwide, the reminders of his promise could be fleeting. In a year, Tristan Stubbs, Matheesha Pathirana, Will Smeed, might be en vogue. The life cycle of IPL hype is brutal.

In part, this is a function of the IPL’s primacy. Aside from international matches between the very best teams at times of full availability, the tournament represents the pinnacle of playing standard in T20 cricket. The standard may be slightly slower this season as a function of the expansion, but it still remains firmly at the top of the tree. It is fair to judge a player’s performance in the league, over a reasonable and fair length of time, as being indicative of their quality, and their ability to perform at the top level, but by its very nature these chances are fleeting. 

What’s more, this primacy is not a bad thing. The air of momentum which surrounds a player as they climb up through the T20 structures, as they pass each test put to them, is often giddying. These are personal narrative arcs in which people are invested, but it’s the jeopardy of failure which adds the tension necessary to make it so. When a player does reach the promised land of the IPL, there should be a worry that they will fail, that they’ll be written off unfairly. That’s the game, that’s the good stuff. 

But while the IPL is the highest quality league, it is not a different sport. The quality of bowling you face may be higher than elsewhere, as may the batters, but it is not an unimaginable gulf to other high quality leagues like the CPL, PSL, and The Hundred. Two months ago, Liam Livingstone was an IPL flop who Rajasthan Royals benched for Glenn Phillips; now, he’s striking at 160 and can’t stop hitting sixes. The social media sprint to assign fraudulent status to overseas players unable to perform within brief, hyper-intense opportunities is pathetic, destructive and brief. 

But in teams, it’s an even more destructive ethic. Pick your players at the auction, the ones you want based on whatever you want, and back them. A decade of Chennai success still doesn’t seem to have got the point home. Try not to get battered by the small samples and runs of form – trust your judgement, your data, your instinct. It’s not just about spotting the Next Big Thing. It’s giving them the room they need to grow into it.

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