@Aadya_Wisden 5 minute read
For years, David Miller teased us with his talent, raising expectations that a T20I phenom was ready to be unleashed, but flashes of brilliance came and went by fast. His sustained success over the last two years, though, is enough indication that he’s finally found his gear in T20Is, writes Aadya Sharma.
The Tower of Terror in Gold Reef City, Johannesburg, is known to be one of the scariest roller coasters in South Africa. It’s built on an old gold mine, with the coaster dropping vertically into an old mineshaft, before rising back up about 50 metres. To think of it, there’s another Tower of Terror in South Africa – David Miller – whose career, much like the contraption in Johannesburg, has gone up and down several times, but is built on a goldmine of talent nonetheless.
At 33, and 12 years into his international career, Miller might have finally uncovered his true identity. That he is one of South Africa’s finest white-ball batters is hardly a doubt, but he’s spent years lurking in the shadows of his more illustrious compatriots, and battling with an image of himself that keeps expectations perenially high. Along the way, he’s seemingly found success wearing multi-coloured kits around the globe, more than, perhaps, in South Africa’s own green and yellow T20 kit.
In a nutshell, Miller’s career has seen flashes of brilliance peppered across patches of underwhelming returns. A power-hitter in the truest sense of the word, he started early, but took time to get going at the international level, especially in T20Is. His first fifty in the format came only in 2016, six years after his debut. But it’s also partly to do with how often he came in and out of the side in the initial years. By his 40th T20I, his career average was below 30 and strike rate under 130. He would bat anywhere between four and seven, pigeonholed to play the quick twenties and thirties. The top order was jam-packed then, giving little space for him to hold his own.
At the same time, Miller was being branded as a T20 game-changer in leagues around the world. He was so watchable: the smooth swing of the bat across the ‘V’ was devastatingly serene, the leg-side swats a thing of beauty. Sixes came out with ridiculous ease. By 2016, he was an IPL captain, having enjoyed two wonderful seasons in 2013 and 2014. It included a century, six fifties and the tag ‘Killer Miller’, supplementary with the oft-used phrase: ‘If it’s in the arc, it’s out of the park’. But there were too many troughs and crests, and never a period of prolonged success. After weaving in and out of form, Miller blasted the fastest men’s T20I century ever, off just 35 balls, in 2017. You almost thought it would be the beginning of something spectacular, but it all vapourised over the next few years. There was no fifty for the next two years, and the career average and strike rate, which had briefly gone above 30 and 140 respectively, slipped back down. His T20I strike rate in 2018 stood at 113.08, went up to 160.82 the following year, and then came down to 120.48 in 2020. Roller coaster.
Since the start of 2021, things have been different. Miller has turned little sparks into a full-blown fire. He averages 49.30 – among all batters from Test-playing nations with at least 500 runs, only Mohammad Rizwan and Virat Kohli average higher. The strike rate stands at 160.65 – with the same qualification, only Suryakumar Yadav, currently operating at a different plane, has better numbers. 36 out of his 97 T20I sixes have come in the last two years (that’s 37 per cent of all his sixes in a 12-year T20I career). He’s hit 641 runs in 399 balls, more than 30 per cent of his career runs, since 2021. It’s not one of those rare flashes. Miller seems to have found a new level.
What has changed? A range of factors, really. For starters, it could be the batting position. No.5 and No.6 are arguably his best spots in T20Is, but after the Potchefstroom hundred in 2017, South Africa started using him weirdly. Two games later, he was bizarrely asked to open the batting, and while he was back to his customary positions soon after, the promotions to No.3 and No.4 kept happening at times, the management probably trying to give him more time to settle and go big. It was also the tricky phase after AB de Villiers, when the batting was looking at a marked transition. Miller was deemed to be the solution to everything that was missing with the middle order, and it didn’t quite work. Since the start of 2021, though, Miller has settled into a specific role, batting 20 out of his 24 innings at five or six. No one has scored more runs since in those positions combined.
It’s also his revamped approach against spin, often a crucial factor in the success or failure of a middle-order batter, that’s brought about a change of fortunes. “I have never really felt like I have been a player who struggled against spin,” Miller said during the IPL this year. “But it is an area I had to improve and in the last three-four years, I have changed my mindset against spin.”
His strike rate against spin this year has gone up to 149.30 compared to his overall figure of 129.60. Against off spin, in particular, the figure has gone up from 118.75 to 157.40. These numbers have also helped resurrect his IPL career: between 2016 and 2020, he never played a full season, managing just one fifty. His yearly strike rates stood at 122.90, 103.75, 115.62 from 2016 to 2019, and 109.73 in 2021. This year, though, he cracked 481 runs at 68.71 for champions Gujarat Titans, striking at 142.73, the aggregate more than his last four seasons combined.
His century last week, albeit in a losing cause against India, showcased the best of Miller, unshackled, true to his power-hitting spirit, and bereft of any doubts or past baggage. Only in June, he had helped chase down a record 212 against the same opposition, cracking 64* off 31 from No.5. “You need two players playing a part while chasing,” he had said then, unknowingly foreshadowing the lack of support he received during his whirlwind hundred in Guwahati. He’s their middle-order saviour, once again, but not a one-stop solution to everything.
It’s as if we’re back almost a decade, Miller is killer again, things that are in arc are going out of the park. He’s leading T20 franchises once more: he took Barbados Royals to the CPL final this year, and will be leading Paarl Royals in the inaugural SA20 early next year. The confidence is soaring high, the runs are coming rapidly. More importantly, though, Miller looks more settled and dependable than he’s probably ever been. The Tower of Terror might stop being a roller coaster, after all.