The bats that AB de Villiers uses to drive bowlers to tears in international cricket is a few milligrams lighter than the one he used earlier. A replica is available for sale at the Titans shop at the SuperSport Park in Centurion, the home of the franchise. If you have enough money (a journalist’s salary allows you to gawk at it and touch it, not buy it), you can stride out to the middle of your next club, or college, or terrace cricket match with the same instrument used by de Villiers.
Ironically enough for the man himself, he’s not really particular about which piece of wood he needs to stride out and begin the job of making bowlers question their career choices.
“I think every batsman wants his bats to feel good, feel like it belongs,” he said during South Africa’s One-Day International series against India. “But I am not too worried about grams or shapes. It’s just got to feel well and feel good when I pick it up.”
So could he, for example, pick up a bat at random when he’s walking out and score a century with it? “Definitely, yeah. If it feels good. It’s all about the feel.”
Several things have changed for AB de Villiers, the cricketer and human being, since his school days, but there is one characteristic that remains. Deon Botes, the man who was de Villiers’s coach during his formative years at the Afrikaans Hoer Seunskool, popularly called Affies, in Pretoria, which is 20 minutes away from Centurion, remembers de Villiers as an outrageously talented schoolboy, but also a batsman who could decimate bowlers with any bat.
“He never cared about things like the bat’s weight and shape,” Botes told Wisden India. “He was so talented, you could give him anything and he’d play with it. I remember I got angry with him for the rugby because it would at times clash with our cricket pre-season. I would tell him to get to the nets, but he would come there late after rugby practice. And he would ask me ‘What do you want me to work on?’ And I would say the on-drive, so he would just hit the drive and say, ‘Was that okay?’ And it was fine. So basically we just wasted his time with this winter training we had. Other guys would struggle to execute some shots. For him, it was an explanation and then he just did it.”
De Villiers is 34 today, and though he’s been part of a humbling 5-1 series defeat against India, his status as one of world cricket’s most devastating, watchable and talented geniuses is undisputed.
At Affies, de Villiers came through the ranks alongside Faf du Plessis, and the two showed characteristics that come to define their play even today. “Who was more talented? Well I hope Faf doesn’t see this, but I think AB was the more talented player,” chuckles Botes. “Faf was always the guy who just grinded it out and tried to bat through and anchor the innings. You could always trust Faf to bat through. AB walked in and scored a 90 or 100 in the first 15 overs and basically kill the game from there. He had a lot of natural talent.
“I know that Faf was probably the only schoolboy who we could walk up to and say, ‘Listen Faf, your wicket is the game. If you bat through we will win and if you don’t we are in trouble.’ I think he was the only cricketer who coped with that kind of pressure. He could take it,” adds Botes. “AB was more a guy who would walk in and just play and instinctively just destroy bowling line-ups. I don’t know if he ever felt pressure! If you watch them now as well, Faf had to bat through against Australia on debut and he could do that. He’s a very good pressure player.”
While they quickly became stars at their school, they were less disciplined outside the cricket field.
“As cricketers, they were quite special. People don’t know that Faf was a South Africa Under-19 legspinner,” recalls Botes. “They were quite naughty. I always remember Faf sitting in class without his school shoes! He was not a great student to be honest. AB was quite a good student to have. He just enjoyed his mates in the class. But I still think AB still feels to the day he should have done better with his school work.
“But they did their naughty things. When I started, Denis Lindsay, the former South Africa batsman, was the cricket pro at the school so he helped me with the side. AB and Faf basically always liked to fool around before practice. When they had to warm-up they would fool around and Lindsay chased them away in no uncertain words! When they saw the back nets was still open they wanted to go practice there on their own. And Lindsay chased them away their again, back to the boarding establishment.
“I coached them for four years. I don’t know what I contributed to their cricket but they were quite naughty in the classrooms, so I had a lot of work trying to just manage them there, and get their disciplines right. That’s why I’m grey at the moment,” adds Botes with eyes twinkling.
Botes says that when de Villiers was growing up, the coaching regimen was very conservative. A reverse sweep would have earned stern rebuke. Lapping a fast bowler while down on one knee was not even in the realm of imagination.
“The 360-degree game that he has now was not honed at school. It’s a pity to say, but no, it wasn’t,” laughs Botes. “We did do the sweep, but the lap sweeps, the reverse sweeps that only came later. Probably because of the T20 format.
“AB batted at No.4 for the school but when he made the Colts side at age 16 (an Under-18 side picked across schools) he opened the batting there. So when he came back he said he wanted to open the batting here. All the shots he’s playing these days in IPL, we didn’t coach that. We were still very conservative so he was playing normal cricket, but he was still an opener. He batted for 15 overs and still scored 90, so it just gives you an idea of the talent he had.”
Botes began his career at Affies alongside de Villiers and du Plessis. He joined as coach in 1998 when they joined as students in the eighth grade. The next year, he was promoted to coaching the school’s first cricket team and one of his first acts was to promote the two talented young men to the first XI, which was captained by Jacques Rudolph. Neil Wagner, who now plays for New Zealand, would also go on to be part of the side later.
But de Villiers was the undoubted star. “A game I will never forget is when we played Durban High School,” says Botes, going back almost two decades in time. “They had Hashim Amla at No.3 and they had Imran Khan, who also played for South Africa. That morning we bowled them out for 140 with the ball doing a bit. Amla made 73 in that game. When we went in to bat, the ball turned and Imran was quite a handful. We lost our first two wickets quickly and Faf and AB came together.
“Imran was giving Faf a hard time turning it back in. When we walked off for tea, AB just said, ‘You know what, just tell Faf he should get me on strike for Imran Khan.’ So I went to Faf and told him he was struggling a bit against Imran and he said yes, he doesn’t have any options against him. I told him to give the strike to AB. So when we got back on the field Faf took a single. And then AB just went down the track and hit Imran over extra cover for four and then he slog-swept him for six. That changed the game, because it’s very difficult for an offspinner to come back from that. If AB batted for 15 overs in high school cricket, we won the game.”
While Botes insists that he hasn’t had to do much with ‘coaching’ a talent like de Villiers, he does reveal that the younger version had a problem with the pull shot. “There was one time he struggled with the pull shot, he had a bit of a grip issue,” recounts Botes. “His top hand was just too far towards himself, so when he pulled the bat closed too quickly. If it does that, then if you mistime it you get a top edge. We just changed the angle of his hand while gripping the bat. Firstly he didn’t want to change it. I remember telling him he would probably have a couple of dismissals on the pull. I think after about the third dismissal, he came to me and said, ‘Alright, let’s change the grip’. So we changed it, and obviously I think he pulls well enough these days!”
Botes is now the Director of Sport at Affies, and cricket of course falls within his ambit. Affies remains one of the best school cricket sides, but one thing has changed since the time de Villiers was learning his craft. If a student wants to try out a lap shot or a reverse sweep, they are not going to get a tongue lashing anymore.
“We do practice them during the season. And the paddles,” smiles Botes. “The game has evolved and we have to evolve with it. Of course, they look up to AB and want to play like him.”
While there may not emerge another AB de Villiers from Affies, his deeds have given every child who comes there an automatic attraction towards cricket. At 34 years old, that is perhaps as valuable a legacy as 8338 runs in Tests and 9577 runs in ODIs.