“I’m not a nice guy on the field,” declares AB de Villiers.
Say what? Cricket’s ultimate superman has combined the batting talents of a genius with the manners of a gentleman without losing any of his inner steel. So what’s he doing saying things that most cricketers spout in order to appear ‘macho’? AB de Villiers has never needed to parade his machismo – his bat has done that for him. Was the world’s best batsman adopting a deliberately ‘tough’ tone to send out a message?
Turns out, he wasn’t. As with de Villiers on the field, there was a perfect balance between the snarling on field and the humanity off it.
“I want to win games. I’ll do whatever it takes for us to win … If I have to sledge, I’ll get involved like that. I’ll try and intimidate a player if I have to. I’ll try and get Virat (Kohli) off his game by talking about his technique and little flaws – I don’t mind doing things like that. Whatever it takes to win games of cricket. I’ve never really respected a guy who’s been a ‘nice guy’ on the field. I want the opposition to be hard, to play to win the game for their team.
“Off the field, I try and be a good human being. It goes a lot deeper than that; it’s got nothing to do with cricket. I know my role in the side and that’s to win games for my team. A lot of times I don’t have to be a nice guy to do that.”
The nasty guy who isn’t will play his 100th Test match on Saturday (November 14) at the M Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bangalore, becoming only the seventh South African in a select list. Most people prefer to have such a significant landmark coming up in front of home crowds. Most people would like it if it came at a surrogate home – as Bangalore is thanks to de Villiers’s IPL team – if not the real thing. Most people aren’t AB de Villiers.
“I’ve never been very fundamental about these kind of things,” he declares. “I don’t care where I play my 100th Test. I didn’t mind where I played my 50th; I don’t mind where I play any of my Test matches. Representing my country is a great honour. The fact that it worked out this way (playing in Bangalore) is really special for me, I love coming here. But I would have been okay with playing it in Bangladesh (where de Villiers, on paternity leave, missed playing two Tests) as well.”
De Villiers is that rare creature in sport – he is at once a legend in the making and a legend already. If he retired today, he would be counted as among the finest of his era. When the mothership comes calling and he eventually does go, he will have built up achievements that rank alongside any others in the history of the game.
I’ve never really respected a guy who’s been a ‘nice guy’ on the field. I want the opposition to be hard, to play to win the game for their team. Off the field, I try and be a good human being. It goes a lot deeper than that; it’s got nothing to do with cricket.
But all that comparison is for us mortals.
“I don’t like to be compared to other players. I never put myself up on the pedestal,” says the man who has already climbed Mount Olympus. “I know I’ve been playing well this year and I’d love to extend that run of form. But, more importantly, I’d like to have an impact on us winning cricket games. I’d like us to win this Test match. That’s the only focus I have at the moment. I know it’s my 100th Test match. My current form … people are comparing me to other players, but all I really want is for us to win games.
“I like to have energy at the crease. I like to be a threat for the opposition and for them to believe that if I bat for a period of time I’m going to win the game for the team. That’s why I play the game.”
And yet, if de Villiers senior had his wish – only his wish, but not his way – many years ago, AB might have been a doctor – a very fit one no doubt who would ace every event in the inter-departmental sports week, but not the batsman who can surgically cut apart or destroy by bludgeoning.
“Playing all kinds of sports growing up shaped me into the cricket player that I am today. I don’t think I can turn my back on that. I played a lot of ball sports growing up, we were a sports crazy family. Two older brothers who always kept me busy in the backyard with all kinds of games,” he smiles. “My parents were never against me playing all kinds of sports. They always let me make my own decisions and learn from my own mistakes. That’s a very valuable lesson growing up. They really allowed me to spread my wings and to do my own thing.
“It was completely my own decision to go into cricket. I think my dad would have liked me to be a doctor or to go to university and get a degree behind my name, but he’ll obviously be happy with where I am at the moment and what I’ve achieved with my cricket. Same with my mom – no pressure from her side. I grew up in a very solid family, really allowing me to do what I want. They gave me a lot of opportunities to express my talent.”
The expression of that talent has brought forth several laurels for South Africa, and the ones closest to de Villiers’s heart remain the team triumphs.
“I’m all about performances for the team and special victories. My mind goes to a lot of series victories away from home – couple of times in England, couple of times in Australia, the Sri Lankan Test series win as well. We’ve had a few good Test series in India – haven’t won it yet but a couple of draws, which was big against what people expected us to achieve. At home, it’s also special to play in front of your home crowd, but people don’t expect you to do well away from home and we’ve had a really good record. It tells a story about the character we have in the side, the resilience – not only as a cricket team but a nation as well. Makes me very proud to have been part of a Test cricket team touring all over the world and winning games.”
The core of the present bunch of South Africans has tasted victory pretty much everywhere except in India. When the Australians came in 2001 and 2004, India was dubbed ‘the Final Frontier’. The South Africans don’t do braggadocio so much – in spite of de Villiers willing to shed the nice-guy label on the field.
“It’s got nothing to do with completing any cycle. We’ve never done it in India. It’ll be a great achievement. That’s enough drive for this team,” he emphasises, before adding a literary flourish quite as grand as his bat swing. “I’ve read a part in a book where some of the All Blacks (New Zealand’s World Cup-winning rugby team) say that it’s not about the individual but it’s about leaving the jersey in a better place for those who’re coming after you. That’s what it’s ultimately all about, to motivate the next generation.”
Come match-day, de Villiers isn’t going to be worked up about the number 100. His match is but a macrocosm of his stay at the crease. The moment is all that matters, even as the larger goal is the one in focus, and everything is in balance.
“I do like to stay in the moment and think about what’s important today, focusing on this Test match. I’m still the same player; I still do the same kind of things. I still build up and try and set a foundation in order to dominate the bowlers at the end of the day. It’s no different in Tests, T20s or ODIs.
“I know we’re 1-0 down and we want to get back into this series. I don’t like looking back too much; I’ve got lots of time after my career to do that. I don’t like to celebrate my own achievements. I don’t feel any pressure because it’s my 100th Test, I feel pressure because we’re 1-0 down. It’s a huge honour to play my 100th Test and I never in my life thought I’ll be in this kind of position. I feel humbled and privileged to get the opportunity to walk out onto the field in my 100th Test.”