AB de Villiers opens up on life and cricket

He gets nervous even when batting in back-yard cricket and he reveals which bowler troubled him the most

23 December 2017 - 00:02 By Sue de Groot

The last time AB de Villiers stepped out in test whites was almost two years ago, so there is likely to be some rumbustious cheering when (all being well) he walks onto the field at St George's Park on Tuesday. He has not played badly in other colours during his break from test cricket, most recently a magnificent one-day international innings in which he scored 176 against Pakistan, plus a total of 232 runs for the Titans in the T20 Challenge.
Last month De Villiers announced via an online video clip that he was again available for the long-form game after a lengthy absence that began with injury followed by a nine-month sabbatical. During that time his wife, Danielle, gave birth to their second child, John Richard, born on July 17 (their first son, Abraham, was born in July 2015).
This week De Villiers was named in the team to play Zimbabwe in a cricket test scheduled for four, instead of the usual five days.Our meeting took place soon after his video announcement, when De Villiers did not yet know how the selectors would decide.
He had other duties to perform at a hotel in Sandton, where he was the guest of honour at a dinner held by Montblanc to reveal its new range. This year the luxury brand chose De Villiers to be one of its global ambassadors, which means he is the face of Montblanc watches, pens and other accessories.
Outside, event organisers are in a flurry preparing for the elite gathering of collectors. Inside, an immaculately dressed De Villiers plays with his Montblanc cufflinks and talks about cricket.
How are you feeling after such a long break from test cricket?
I'm feeling good, very refreshed. Looking back, it was the right decision to step away for a bit. I had got a bit tired of the game in general and felt I needed to get away, spend more time with the family and think about where I'm going with my career. I did miss it, but I felt I'd made the right decision, so I was content to be sitting at home watching the England and New Zealand tests on TV.
I followed all of it, but I didn't wish I was there on the park. I've had a great time at home and I've had a great pre-season, which I haven't had for 13 years - two months to just work on my game and my technique, the smaller things you don't have time to concentrate on during a season.
I've had a great time with the Titans boys in Pretoria and I've been able to share my knowledge with some of the youngsters.
Does test cricket have a future?
Definitely. I think the ICC [International Cricket Council] has done a lot to shake the game up and make it more exciting, like day-night test cricket. Proper test cricket is still the genuine format, the biggest challenge for the players. We will always see it as the purest form of the game. I can't see it going away. I'm optimistic about its future.
Does South Africa have enough young players coming through the ranks?
More than enough. We've lost quite a few players and everyone's talking about how South African cricket is going to struggle in the years to come, but I've been pleasantly surprised to see some amazing talent come through over the last while. Everyone knows about Kagiso Rabada now, he's not new anymore, but there's also Lungi Ngidi - I play with him for the Titans and I believe he's going to be someone to look out for.
I can see him and Kagiso opening the bowling together. Then there's a really good player, Aiden Markram. And Wiaan Mulder, who is also except
ionally talented. Andile Phehlukwayo made a name for himself in the last season ... all these are youngsters coming through in the middle of all this supposed chaos people are talking about - "Where is South African cricket going? We're losing all our players" - but I just see talent, so I'm very optimistic about our future, I think we've got a really good 10 years ahead of us.
What can be done to retain talent and improve standards at provincial cricket level?
The Global Destination [T20] league that was supposed to happen this year and was cancelled was a huge knock for us. I think that would be a big solution to help keep players here. Youngsters get an opportunity to play with some of the best players in the world; they share a change room with them and they play at a higher level than they ever have, so I think that's going to be the answer to our cricket. Hopefully it will happen next year.You spend some of the year in Bangalore where you play with Virat Kohli. How do you rate him as India's captain?
I've seen him improve as a leader over the years and it's great to see him doing so well. They're the No1 test team in the world and I'm very excited that they are going to be touring in South Africa. I haven't played against India for a while now, so it's going to be a really good series.
I'd say Virat is one of the best captains at the moment, the most improved - there's a big change from when I first saw him captaining to now. He's always been the kind of player who adapts and learns quickly. But he's probably one of the cricketers that plays the most; he's been so busy. He's still young, so it's not frowned upon that he's playing so much, but he also needs a break now and then.
Teams like India, England, Australia, they play a hell of a lot of cricket throughout the season, so I think he just decided, like I did, that he needed a bit of time away from the game. I'm happy for him that he's taking it earlier rather than later. [Kohli, who recently married Bollywood star Anushka Sharma, withdrew from India's current ODI and T20 series against Sri Lanka. He will rejoin his team in South Africa on January 5.]
What are some of the pressures of being a captain?
It's a tough job. It's not for everyone. I was a captain for six years. I had some really good times, but also some bad times. It's a lonely job. You sit in your room on your own sometimes and you can find yourself thinking some funny things ... thinking that you've just taken on the whole world by yourself. But you can't make the team feel that, or hear it, or see it by your actions and your body language. You have to bite your tongue sometimes for the good of the team.
But I have no regrets. I think that Faf [du Plessis], who took over from me, has all the credentials to make a really successful captain. I believe he has the potential to become the best captain South Africa has seen so far.
Are there different requirements of a captain for different formats?
It's pretty much the same except for a slight change in mindset when you're looking at the game, a slight change in skills set.
I think as a captain you can have the same attitude throughout the three formats. The most important things are to have good vision, to see where the team is going before the rest can see it; to be selfless, to always put yourself last and the team first. You need a great support structure away from the game - it can be your coach, but also when you get home, the family, a mentor - people like that become really important to you.
Which sportsmen would you say were your biggest role models?
My first cricket hero was Jonty Rhodes. I clearly remember in 1992 watching his world-famous run-out live on TV, when we were playing Pakistan. I was eight years old and my dad woke me up at about 2am to watch. That run-out had a big impact on me, on my career and my dreams as a youngster - I wanted to be like him one day. A couple of years later my dad took us to Centurion and I watched Jonty play, and I saw Hansie. Shaun Pollock made his test match debut that day and I ended up playing quite a few test matches with him later.
Jonty was my biggest hero but there were others from different sporting codes: Ernie Els, who I've been lucky enough to meet a few times and who I can call a friend; Joost van der Westhuizen from rugby. From football a lot of players - Mark Fish, Doctor Khumalo, Benni McCarthy, Eric Tinkler ... I look up to any South African sportsman who has done well and conducts himself in a good manner.
Who is the best bowler you've ever faced?
Andrew Flintoff. He's always been a big-match-temperament kind of bowler, so when the crowd got behind him he took his game to the next level. And Shane Warne. When I played against him he had this aura about him, such presence. He was a very intimidating bowler, a clever guy. I won't say he's the best bowler I've faced - he didn't make me feel as though he was going to get me out with every ball, even though he did get me out a few times.
But Andrew Flintoff was the guy I felt most threatened by. I'm older now, so it'd be a different ball game, I think, if I played against him again.Do you feel nervous when walking out to bat?
Always. Whatever game I play. It can be club cricket or just a back-yard game with my brothers. I think it's a good sign when I'm nervous; it's like you have a care factor. It shows that it really means something to me. There are also so many outside factors that play a role in putting pressure on me - expectations, mine and the crowd's, knowing your teammates are watching you and they need you to perform ... Funny enough it's not always the biggest games that make me most nervous.
In the big ones it's like a blur; I just go out and do my thing, but it's those in-between kind of games where we have too much time to think about things, where I get more nervous. In the World Cup semifinals it was more excitement than nerves. I've always felt that being nervous brings out the best in me; it switches on my body in a way, my senses are alert. I've never felt that it cramped me. You don't want to be so nervous that you can't talk or walk, but I wouldn't like it to go away.
How do you remain focused for long periods on the pitch?
That's an inner drive that no one can teach you. The hunger to be the best and to perform and to have an impact on the game, to make your teammates happy and proud of your performance. To see the joy in my teammates' faces when I do well keeps me going. I love watching the game before I go out to bat, but I don't have any rituals or superstitions. Some of the guys do, but I just want to get ready quickly so I can get as much info as possible into my brain before I go out there, so that I know exactly what's required of me. I don't drink too much before I go out to bat because I know I'll need the toilet at some stage; I don't have a very strong bladder.
Does your wife follow cricket?
My wife is interested in the game because I play it, but otherwise she doesn't follow cricket. She'll want to find out what happened, how did I play, did I enjoy myself. She knows what's going on. She'll ask me out of the blue every now and then how the boys are doing, but other than that there's no cricket talk at home.
When anyone asks me about my wife I find it difficult to describe her in words. I always say, um, she's just lovely, she's part of me, what else can I say?What values do you want to teach your sons?
I just want them to be good kids. They're both healthy and that's all I can ask for. I'll help them with decision-making, which is really important, and it's important to commit to something once you've decided on it. I'd like to think they're going to be hard workers and will go for what they want. Dedication to what they decide they want to do. I just want to be their father, I want to be there for them when they need me, give them opportunities to go and do what they want, be a good example.
What would you like them to say about you when they are older?
Just that I was always there, especially when they needed me most. I'd like to think I'm always going to be there for them ... uh ... you're going to make me cry now, I'm not ready to answer these questions. I just want them one day to tell their friends that I was a good man, and they're proud of me. They'll know what to say.
Any pets?
No. We used to have two Yorkies but we had to give them away because we travel so much. One is with my brother, so we see her every now and then.
At a summons from his host, De Villiers smiles, snaps his cufflinks and straightens his jacket. Walking into a room full of wealthy fountain-pen collectors might not be as anxiety-inducing as stepping onto a field in front of thousands of cricket fans, but no doubt he will still be applauded...

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