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My career started to peak when I accepted I had weaknesses: AB de Villiers

AB de Villiers, former South African batter, on what built him as one of the greatest modern-day cricketers

Kathakali Chanda
Published: Jul 1, 2023 08:00:00 AM IST
Updated: Jun 29, 2023 03:54:08 PM IST

AB de Villiers
Image: Ashley Vlotman/Gallo Images/Getty ImagesAB de Villiers Image: Ashley Vlotman/Gallo Images/Getty Images

AB de Villiers had the freakish ability to do anything he wanted to on the cricket field. He could pluck catches out of thin air, keep wickets, score a century off 30-odd balls one day and 33 off 220 the other, and within a week of the latter, could lead his team to victory with 169 off 184 balls (as he did against Australia). With over 20,000 international runs to his name, de Villiers earned the sobriquet of 'Mr 360 Degrees' for his ability to manoeuvre inexplicable angles and hit anywhere on the field.

While de Villiers retired from international cricket in 2018, he continued to play for the Royal Challengers Bangalore in the IPL. When he finally hung up his boots in 2021, he left behind a trailblazing legacy, being only the second international cricketer (besides David Warner) to score over 5,000 runs in the tournament.

In an exclusive chat with Forbes India, the former South African cricketer explains how his upbringing shaped his game and why humility must accompany greatness. Edited excerpts:

'My family gave me the competitive edge'

I grew up in a sports-crazy family and was the youngest of three brothers, six and nine years older than me, respectively. My mum and dad used to be the most competitive people that I know. And we competed in all kinds of sports—be it cricket, tennis, rugby, athletics, or swimming, and we even had piano and guitar lessons. I grew up in a town now called Bela-Bela, where, on my bicycle, I would ride to school and to the sports grounds in the afternoon. It gave me the best kind of upbringing that any youngster could wish for to enjoy sports. And I was driven because of my older brothers—they created this competitive engine because I'm so much younger than them. So, to be part of any kind of activity, I always had to push myself and prove that I belong to play with them.

'Professional cricket happened to me by chance, almost overnight'

Getting to high school, I quickly realised academics would keep me busy, and I couldn't play all sports. I had to knuckle it down and focus more on rugby and cricket and, occasionally, golf. Tennis slid away even though I thought it was probably my strongest sport growing up. At 16, cricket started excelling—I started making teams, scoring runs more consistently, and I was selected for the B side of the national schools' team. That was the first time I realised I might not be too bad at cricket—I was only in grade 10, and I was in the top 22 of the country. In Classes 11 and 12, I took cricket up more seriously and made the SA schools team and the under-19 team, but I still didn't think it was going to be a career. I wanted to study medicine after school since my dad's a doctor, and I always wanted to be one, but I realised if I wanted to play cricket at all, I couldn't study medicine. I took up sports science just to get something behind my name, but five months in, I got picked for the domestic provincial team and, a few months later, into the Proteas (the South African national) side. I almost never decided to play cricket until I found myself in the Proteas side, and when I did, it literally happened overnight.

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'Learn to survive; it will see you through your lowest ebb'

When I made it to the national side, I was 20 and not ready at all. I had no idea what was coming my way. It was still going well in the first year when I debuted against England in 2004. But in the first break that we got, I paused and thought to myself what I was doing—I was playing against guys like Glenn McGrath and Sachin Tendulkar. Just the other day, we were playing in the backyard, and I was pretending to be Sachin and all of a sudden, I was playing against him. I'm not ready—this guy is trained, and his technique is perfect. I started thinking about the game a little too much, I started perfecting stuff, and I realised my technique was not in place. It was around that time that I went through a dip in 2005. It wasn't pleasant at all, and the 2005-06 season was the hardest time in my life. I found myself crying in the shower at times, just feeling overwhelmed. Eventually, I did find a way to get through that, like I've done with most things in my life, to survive, thanks to my upbringing. Over time, I managed to sort my technique.    

Along with former India captain Virat Kohli (right), AB de Villiers has been the batting mainstay for IPL team Royal Challengers Bangalore. He is also the second international cricketer, besides Australian David Warner, to score over 5,000 runs in the tournament Image: Manjunath Kiran / AFP) Along with former India captain Virat Kohli (right), AB de Villiers has been the batting mainstay for IPL team Royal Challengers Bangalore. He is also the second international cricketer, besides Australian David Warner, to score over 5,000 runs in the tournament Image: Manjunath Kiran / AFP)

'Don't get ahead of yourself; stay in the moment'

Growing up, Jonty Rhodes was my role model purely because of the way he enjoyed the game. I was 11 when I watched him play live for the first time—he was hitting balls in the nets, and I was very inspired. He was always friendly, he always had time for people, and I could relate with him—just an ordinary person who loved what they were doing. His advice to me was to take one ball at a time and take every ball on its merit. I was about 19 when we played an invitational game at Newlands. Jonty watched me bat that night, and, in the changing room afterwards, he told me, "AB, you are a very talented youngster. Just play one ball at a time. You don't have to play the ball that's coming in two overs time."

'Learn and imbibe from people around you'

I've also had some great friends around me—Mark Boucher, Jacques Kallis, and Graeme Smith—who've helped me find my feet. It's because of them that I started feeling that I belonged in the South African dressing room. Boucher was a nitty-gritty fighter who taught me to never give up and always work harder than the next guy. Kallis taught me to be composed and worked on my technique. He would always keep an eye on my batting—he isn't a man of many words, but he would come to me after the game and just say things like "your feet were too closed" and just leave it there. In the nets, I would work on it, and he would come to me in the next session, say "much better", and walk away. Graeme Smith taught me about leadership—he was always on my case. He would always tell me, "Take responsibility", "That's not good enough", and "That's better". He was a guy who taught me how to be a man manager because he managed me so well. And then there was Jacques Rudolph, who was a friend and was in the same school as me. In my toughest years of 2005-06, he told me to "keep a diary and write down stuff". I was dismissive because "only girls keep diaries". He taught me that one must keep a journal of what one's learnt in the past. "Remember what worked for you when you were playing at your best, and write down three points," he told me. And I kept those three points up until my retirement.

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'Accept your weaknesses, they will only help you improve'

I keep telling youngsters that the most important thing you'll ever learn in cricket is to understand your own strengths and weaknesses. I only learnt that in 2008 because, before that, I was too stubborn to accept I had weaknesses. As a youngster, I felt I was invincible until I got broken down. It's the 2005-06 season I'm talking about, India and Pakistan's tour to South Africa. I found out that technically I'm not as sound as I thought. I could still attack and take them down, but if I had to play a Test match and look after my wicket, I'd be in trouble. I had pacers bowling to me—Sreesanth and Zaheer Khan from India and Pakistan's Mohammad Asif and Umar Gul—who were all over those wickets the whole time. In South Africa, as an opening batter, it's not easy as the ball nips around. That's when I realised something's got to change. Not that I was ever arrogant, but I just didn't think I had a problem.

In 2007, Mickey Arthur came to me and said, "This is your last chance. If you don't score runs in this game, you're out of the team," which was quite a big thing to tell a youngster just before the 2007 World Cup. And I scored 60-odd against Pakistan and another 50 a few days later. And then the runs started coming in. It was an absolute miracle, I still wasn't feeling good, but I found a way to get out of it. I was subsequently selected for my World Cup side and scored my first ODI century there against West Indies.

'Always have your team's back'

Jacques Kallis had a very important influence on my career. In 2007, in the pre-season games that we were playing in Ireland, he would stand in the nets and point out technique deficiencies like "your backlift is still behind your back". He also told me my defensive game wasn't good enough, and when a bowler came straight at the wicket at me, I was vulnerable. Kallis was a man of few words, but he was the master of technique. He would also take me out in the evenings—again didn't say much—but it just gave me the confidence that this guy actually cared about what I was doing. That's all you need in a team environment—to know there are people who've got your back. It was in the 2008 Test series against India that I defended a ball and felt okay for the first time. Sreesanth could nip the ball anywhere he wanted to, and I was ready. I scored a double hundred in Ahmedabad, and the big door opened for me. Since then, I felt I could take on anybody.

One of the most feared short-format batters in the world, de Villiers say he shored up his defensive play after a difficult 2005-06 season. In a Test series against India in 2008, he scored a double century. Since then, he says, he felt he could take anyone on Image: Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images One of the most feared short-format batters in the world, de Villiers say he shored up his defensive play after a difficult 2005-06 season. In a Test series against India in 2008, he scored a double century. Since then, he says, he felt he could take anyone on Image: Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images

'Control your mind, control the game'

Before 2008, I probably wrong-footed myself in believing that I'm not capable of scoring big runs. Hundreds, yes, but doubles and triples? I didn't know how these guys did it. Since I was young, people told me, you're an attacking player, you play your strokes, and you are a white-ball cricketer. And that's what I believed. It was okay up until 2008 when I got frustrated with myself getting to a 40 or a 60, or maybe a hundred here and there, but not a double. It changed only because of Kallis, because of whom my defensive game fell into place. I started enjoying making the bowlers feel like, "How long is this going to last?" 2008 was the year when I decided to prove I could attack, but I also could go longer. In that Test against India in Ahmedabad, I scored around 170, Harbhajan [Singh] was bowling to me, and the field was set close. I wanted to have fun and thought that since I saw the ball so well, I'll show them that I've got a T20 streak in me. I got to 217 not out that day, and a few thereafter, too.  

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'The hunger to do something special is the biggest motivator'  

While I've had those days scoring a century off 31 balls, there have also been occasions where I've had to dig in my heels, scoring 33 off 220 [vs Australia] or 43 off 297 [vs India]. Curbing my natural instincts for these innings is something I am most proud of because these prove that never in my career have I played a game for myself. The game has never been about me. It was what the situation demanded, and it came from the hunger that I had to save the game for my country. These were the principles I was brought up with—that I would do anything for a cause that I believed in.

I've always seen an opportunity in the worst of times—in those situations, I went back to the journey I've had since I was three or four. I would tell myself that I'd watched these guys when I was growing up, that I knew what a Test match was all about, and that I had all the skills and technique to counter the opposition. But you know what it eventually comes down to? Desire. You can see that in any successful athlete. In tennis, when you are watching a [Rafael] Nadal or a [Roger] Federer or a [Novak] Djokovic—and I'm not comparing myself to any of these greats—you'd think it's not humanly possible to do what they are doing. Then how are they doing it? It's not just preparation. It comes from the hunger to do something special.

'It's the pressure that you put on yourself that kills you'

I've never had a problem with the pressure of expectations from other people. It's the expectation you put on yourself. Once you do something that's seen as magical and amazing, after a few years, you lie awake in bed at night and go, "I can't believe I have to do this again tomorrow." You start sleeping a bit worse and start feeling the pressure. But every single time I have crossed the boundary rope and walked towards the pitch, I've always felt free. But the build-up has always been tough for me since 2012-13, and after 2015 it just got worse every year because of the extra pressure I would put on myself. I've dealt with it as well as I could, but it wasn't easy.

'Have role models but be yourself'

Kids wanting to do well in life must remember that everyone's path is different. Don't ever compare yourself to anyone else. Don't try to be an AB or a Virat [Kohli], or a Rohit Sharma. Be yourself. If you understand your own strengths and weaknesses, you will manufacture something incredibly special that the world has never seen before. Second, humility is key. Keep your feet on the ground. Always remind yourself that you're never better than anyone else. Someone might be having a tough day, don't rub it in. Be prepared to work hard and harder than the person next to you. And no matter what you take on, never ever give up.