I and Faf had that connection and understanding of sports and we had fantastic five years at our school: AB de Villiers

"I think it is still to this day, the main most memorable five years of my life," added de Villiers

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AB de Villiers and Faf du Plessis
AB de Villiers and Faf du Plessis. (Photo Source: MANJUNATH KIRAN/AFP via Getty Images and Vishal Bhatnagar/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

AB you’ve pioneered cricket to what it is today. You’ve revolutionized the game and evolved the game to where it is. And I want to welcome you to the home of Heroes, it’s an absolute pleasure to have you here.

Thanks, Robbie. It’s great to be here and thanks for the intro. I really appreciate it. I get a bit shy from time to time, especially when people talk about me like that. But look, I’ve had a very enjoyable career and I think the main thing was just I had a lot of fun out there and my connection with India. What has happened, I don’t know how it happened, but it’s changed my life and I’ll forever remember my great experiences on the field and my connection with the fans of cricket in India.

I want to talk more about that. Right. But before that, I want to know what your earliest memory and your introduction was to cricket. How did that happen?

I started from a very young age. I have two older brothers, six and nine years older than me. There’s a big gap. And it was always a big push for me to sort of compete with them. So, in the backyard, like most other boys, I didn’t have TV games or an iPad or any nonsense like that.

Did they also play cricket?

They love cricket as well. They did not play internationally, that’s potential. Probably a little bit lazier than I was, as I said I was the youngest. So, I was always pushed to work a bit harder to really lift my game, to try and compete with them. And I think that played a huge role in setting the foundation of my cricket.

And in that was cricket the first game you played or were there other sports that you played before cricket came along?

I think it was a combination of quite a few sports. I think golf and cricket sort of started together. There was tennis and rugby and a few others. But I think cricket and golf are probably the main ones that I just played from the age of three, I think I started eating golf balls not long after my brothers introduced me to cricket. We were rolling pitches. We played on the tar roads, dirt roads, everywhere we could find a spot, we would create this cricket game one up, one bounce, you know. So just lots of fun, different rules, and sort of crafted what you eventually saw on the television. 

When did you feel like cricket took over for you? Because you started playing golf at the age of three because there was someone in the family playing golf otherwise you wouldn’t be introduced to it at such a young age, right? So, when did that kind of crossroad or intersection come when you had to choose between, say, one of the sports?

That happened much later, actually. I think I was about 16 years old. To come back quickly to the family- I have a sports-crazy family. The most competitive people you’ll ever meet. And I was the baby. And that’s this crazy dynamic. My mom and dad could hardly ever play sports against each other because they would just fight, I don’t think we ever finished like 9 holes together on a golf course as a family of five. My dad would just walk off and my mom would be like I’m done with this. Just very competitive, and very healthy. I mean, there might be some sort of make-up afterward and we had dinner together. But on the course, and on the tennis courts and wherever, we play sports against each other.

It was very fierce competition. But anyway, later on in my career, I think I was about 16 when I made it to the school’s team, the B side where I started realizing, okay, now it’s sort of coming down to maybe the top 20 to 30 guys in the country of my age group. And then 17, 18 things started happening. Some doors started opening up, made to the school’s team and SA U19 team and then had some good tournaments. And I think everything just happened so quickly after that. In the next 12 to 18 months, my whole career changed, and I found myself facing Steven Harmison who was the number one test bowler at the time in my first test match in Port Elizabeth.

But you were super focused when you were a young kid in school. I remember reading Faf’s book that you were like one who aced everything. You aced studying, you aced three or four different sports. And you were like completely focused. Where did that come from?

Its funny Faf says that. I didn’t necessarily. I said he was just very, very lazy. He doesn’t like his schoolwork. He just wanted to be on the cricket field the whole day long and play rugby with the boys. I just grew up sort of- I could never let something go. And schoolwork is fun. It’s an important thing. So as much as I loved sports, I knew it was part of my responsibility to spend a bit of time in front of the books as well.

I wasn’t the top ten in the school or anything like that when it comes to academics, but I made sure that I’ve sort of looked after that part of my school years as well. It was important to me, I have different standards in my life, in different areas. And I would just hate myself if I let any of that go. I’m not a perfectionist, but the responsibility part of making sure different areas in your life is in place is important to me.

I’m going to go back to an incident that happened early on in your life about someone, you know, you had your Proteas cap trampled upon. Can you talk us through that incident and how that impacted you?

It was actually a Jonty Rhodes cap, that. I was 11 years old when I went to Centurion Park for the first time. I watched my first live game. I saw Shaun Pollock getting his first wicket and I remember going to the nets and I watched Jonty Rhodes hit balls and there was someone selling caps and balls, like most cricket grounds. And I saw this green and gold Jonty Rhodes cap and I got my dad to buy it for me. And that was like my biggest treasure and growing up by it, obviously, like any other sports-loving fan or a boy growing up.

 I had cards of players on the back of my headboard on my bed and I had this green and gold Jonty cap. And I remember that Saturday, the next Saturday we had a backyard game. We rolled the pitch. My brothers with his friends, with all their friends. I was obviously, by a long way, the youngest and I would carry water for everyone, and I would just get an opportunity to field and that made me very happy.

I’m in the field and it’s one up, one end, and I dropped one and one of my brother’s oldest friends. Actually, it’s a long story, but I’m going to make it as quick as possible, he is a left arm fast bowler. We ended up playing together later on at university and he was a really skilful bowler, was amazing. He was bowling and I dropped the catch of his bowling, and he came to me, and he said, take off that hat because you’re not worthy of wearing that. 

And he sort of stepped on it. And I was broken, and I was shattered. But I understood always, because all my older brothers understood that respect your elders. So, I took it in a good way. I was obviously broken, but I understood that, you know what the standards are, if you drop a catch, someone is going to be upset too. Just pick yourself up and go again.

How old were you?

I was 11. I was young, but I could play. And I finally got my chance to better the end of the day where I faced him for the first time, and I stood up. And I did pretty well. But anyway, many years later to be exact, seven, eight years later, we played together in the first team of the university. He was in his early thirties here and we had a fantastic team.

Faf was there, Kruger Van Wyk, Jacques Rudolph, we all in one club side so we had a very good team, and he was the guy that sort of took me under his wing coming into the university side, bowled to me in the nets. He was an incredible bowler to this day, one of the best I’ve ever faced, and it was just a great learning curve. And from the age of 11, I thought this is the biggest bully in the world to playing together in a club team. And it was just incredible. But that’s the Jonty Rhodes cap story from being broken to finally playing with this guy in the club side and doing well.

Amazing. It’s great. And it’s a fantastic story. Like and you mentioned Faf a couple of times. What was he like in school?

Yeah, we were good friends. We met when we were about nine years old. We weren’t great friends then. It was competition, you know, we had that little chest out both of us, like first meeting for me. And I’ve heard of you. You’ve heard of me. So, it was very awkward. We finally ended up playing together going into high school, also a little bit weird, but when we found each other in the A team, we became friends. We understood that we are both very competitive. We both want the same thing and that’s to win cricket games. So, we had that connection and understanding of sports and we had a fantastic five years at our school. I think it is still to this day, the main most memorable five years of my life. 

He’s always been a little bit of a late bloomer. Even in school. Like when you read his book, you understand that there was a bit of a learning curve for him and he felt like you were so focused and so driven that you just kind of catapulted into the biggest stage of cricket.

It’s actually a great lesson for anyone out there listening. No one’s path is the same, no one’s journey is the same, and every guy is the frontier. Some guys get different breaks early on, different opportunities. Not that he didn’t get opportunities, but his path was just destined to be different. He finally went to England, played a bit there, and I think there was a hunger and desire for him that realized, you know what, I actually want to play for South Africa.

He came back, I remember him calling me and saying, Listen, why do you think I said, you are destined to play for the Proteas, come back, come and do your thing. And it wasn’t long after that I think six months later, he scored some hundreds, I think three in a row domestically. And I was also in the ear of Graeme Smith at the time and saying what’s going on? I’m not going to claim any other career. But anyway, long story short, we finally ended up playing together and it was an incredible moment for us to find the two of us in the same team and having fun with and giving our best for South Africa.

What was it like, though, for you, as you were you were 18, 19 when you made the Test debut?

I was very young. I was definitely not ready. Those first two years. I was absolutely no way. But as I mentioned before, this self-belief and hunger and desire, I felt I was destined to be there. So even though technically I felt like this is a bit out of my depth. So, it’s a weird thing I felt at home. The pace wasn’t too much. The crowd didn’t bother me, but I felt like technically these guys were very accurate. All of a sudden, they’re around that off stump the whole time. Freddie Flintoff getting bounce, nipping it around. I wasn’t used to bowl seaming off the deck all of a sudden bounced nipping away and nipping back.

So, I felt a little bit off my depth there with regards to accuracy and skill, but I just felt at home and this hunger just kept burning and burning and I had a decent start and then I had that crash in my second season. And I was definitely not, I didn’t have the armoury to, to deal with that. I had no idea where to go. All of a sudden, advice from everybody, coaches from left, right and centre, very confusing time. But that ongoing desire kept burning. And I found my way out of that. And I think that season 2005-06 sort of set me up for the rest of my life.

Yeah. And what did you do differently after that?

I finally discovered that just keeping sticking to the basics really worked. I had Jacques Rudolph giving me good advice to start writing down, keep a diary, and write down some things that worked for you in the past. Finally, I had dotted it down to three points that sort of to the very last game stuck with me and that was the most basic stuff that you would ever imagine. Its quiet head, which means to your mind, when you walk out to bat, don’t overthink things.

 It’s just you and the ball. Strong feet, meaning body language. I looked up an opponent in the eye, have a good position when you’re batting as well and last watch the ball. And funny enough the watch the ball part was a thing I sort of forgot when I was really confused. Yeah, I remember walking off the field a few times thinking like, oh yeah, I didn’t see the cricket ball here. The guy who is bowling is not that fast. So, what the hell’s going on? Yeah.

And then I realized, you know what, when you actually see the ball out of the hand of the bowler, you sort of buy yourself so much more time. Then it’s just a matter of waiting for the ball to see it and let it come to you. And I can tell you my best knocks. I’ve had success pre meditating before, but I’ve had success having an absolute clear mind and the clear mind knocks an innings are the ones that are country mile, the most flawless knocks I’ve ever played in my life. Not even knowing what’s going on around me, not hearing noise, just sort of being in this bubble of seeing the ball and loving the fact that I’m seeing it out on the bowlers hand, almost sort of enjoying the fact that I know that they’re not going to get me out today. 

Just brought yourself into that zone.

So, I think your program, before you go to bed, you know exactly what you need to do. And anyway, there’s no need to overthink it while you’re out there. You just sort of just confuse yourself.

That’s some insight. That is great.

I’ll give you one more example of that. Sydney Cricket Ground 2015. We played a World Cup game against the West Indies. And I was very nervous, very fired up. It’s a must win for us. But 3:00 that morning I got really sick in my room, and I got injections and all sorts of stuff. I didn’t sleep. I arrived at the Sydney Cricket Ground and I told the coach, listen, I don’t think I can warm up, I’m just going to take a nap.

Ended up batting first and I was literally sleeping before going out to bat. But my point is there was something more important than focusing out and stressing about a cricket game. I honestly felt like I couldn’t play. So, that became the bigger matter that I could just walk out. I was lucky. I was happy enough that I could just play. Finally. Which took everything else sort of out of the equation. And I remember standing there facing my first ball and I was like, I don’t care if I get out there, I’m just going to see the ball and just like move slowly.

 Be in my mode, you know? And it was incredible how in such slow motion everything happened that day. Seeing the ball bigger, I was half asleep. Looking at the sun just standing there going like, oh, this game is actually so enjoyable, so easy, so slow and it’s so difficult to get into that zone. In that zone, it’s so enjoyable.

I know what you mean. When everything kind of slows down and you feel like, what’s going on? I’m really enjoying this. I don’t want overthink it, but just I want to kind of stay in the sweet spot, how did you end up scoring in that game.

160 something off 60 balls. That’s the other thing. It was a fast-paced energy kind of innings. I don’t know what, but it never felt like I was in a hurry. I was just so relaxed and so easy. So, it’s a fine line, you know, you want your body to move, and you want to be in the zone, but you just want the mind to be switched off. I think that’s the key.

That’s amazing. But for me, when I’ve observed you from the outside because I felt like we saw two AB de Villiers. One in the first few years of his career and then somebody else post for 2011 and 12. what happened between those two phases for you?

I think, very inexperienced from 2004 to 2008. That’s where the big change happened for me. I remember the first double hundred I got in Test cricket. I never thought I was able of getting close to 200 because I was sort of labelled as this white ball cricketer who grew up in the high school and liked fast scoring, takes on his shots, not really reliable.

So 2008 also I was working with Jacques Kallis at the time, really focusing on my technique. I felt my defence was absolutely shocking. I couldn’t play a front foot defensive shot purely because I was early on the ball. I hated a good length delivery because I wanted to quickly smother it.

You know, what I learned to do really just trust your technique, trust the fact that your balance is good and just allowed to hit your face. 45 degree more is the smallest angle bat. And I remember facing Sreesanth had that ability of nipping it around, beating the bat a couple of times. And I realized, you know what? I never pushed to that and I started really enjoying playing the front foot defensive  shot.

And that was the big turning point from 2008. I think that was the foundation layer. And then 2009, 2010, I really started kicking on that story. I started doing that, but also sort of taking the bowlers on at the same time. And the game was very enjoyable since then. Knowing that my defence is in place now, I can also discover other areas of my game.

When you look back at your Test career, 8000 runs averaging about 50 as in how do you look back at it?

Oh, tough one, I think. Incredible memories, lots of ups, lots of downs, mainly good memories. And yeah, I don’t know if I should go into this, but I’ve always. Into it. I’ve always hated stats. So, I looked at the 10,000 run mark and I thought I just told myself to say that 10,000 is a number. And anyway, yeah, I’m going to decide to myself when I’ve had enough.

And I felt at the time, due to many reasons, I think there’s about 20 good reasons, some of them very personal, some of them not so much. I felt, you know what? It’s time for me. What do I want to achieve for the last four years of my career, I wanted to play and finish at RCB and enjoy my cricket. It’s always been about enjoyment.

So, in 2008, I felt like, you know what, I’m probably a season or two away from 10,000 and then maybe even more, who knows? And I just felt like it’s not important to me. What else do I want to achieve in Test cricket? How comfortable am I feeling in the team environment at the moment? And there some boxes that weren’t ticked and I decided, you know what, that’s it’s time to move on. Physically  I was still there. And I saw myself enjoying my last few years in the IPL. Go to Middlesex, play county cricket, which I’ve never done before, go to the Big Bash. I wanted to experience some grounds around the world, some teams, and create more friendships, and that’s what I decided on for the last three years of my career.


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