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I am scared of Indian cricket, it's getting stronger and stronger: AB de Villiers

The South African great speaks about how IPL has revolutionised T20 cricket, the emergence of promising cricketing talent in India, the upcoming Champions Trophy and why he wouldn't call himself the best batsman in the world

Published: May 14, 2017

I am Senior Assistant Editor with the Forbes India magazine in Mumbai. A journalist for over a decade, I am also the author of Ramakant Achrekar: Master Blaster’s Master, a biography of the great cricket coach, and Vinod Kambli: The Lost Hero, a biography of the former India cricketer. Apart from my love for news and writing, I am passionate about cricket, movies and music

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Image: Joshua Navalkar

There’s a great deal of excitement every time AB de Villiers walks to the crease. The cricketing legend is known to turn around matches with his ability to effortlessly pierce the gaps and clear the field with minimum fuss. The utmost ease with which he tames the best of bowlers across formats has earned him the reputation of being one of the best modern-day batsmen in the world. The 33-year-old South African, though, despite being aware of his special talent, refuses to call himself the greatest.  

In an interview to Forbes India, de Villiers says he’d like to believe that he has the ability to win games out of nothing. “That’s probably my biggest strength. I don’t think everyone has those skills. But I won’t say I am the best player in the world. That will be disrespectful to players who are in amazing form like a David Warner or Virat Kohli… Joe Root [of England] who’s not even at the IPL, Ben Stokes–who scored a fabulous hundred [for Rising Pune Supergiant] the day before [May 1]. There are so many good players… it will be disrespectful to say I am the best player in the world. But I do have certain skills that others don’t and others have certain skills that I don’t,” he says with modesty.

The South African one-day internationals captain is as articulate with his views as he’s uncomplicated with a bat in his hand. He admits that the current season of the Indian Premier League (IPL) has been disappointing both for his team, Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB)–which are languishing at the bottom of the table with just two wins in 13 matches–and himself personally: He has scored only 216 runs at an average of 27.

RCB, with impact players like Kohli, Chris Gayle, Shane Watson and de Villiers himself, were expected to be the Goliaths of the T20 league, which is why their sub-par performance has left cricket lovers dissatisfied. How difficult is it to deal with such lows? “It’s tough… that’s the nature of the beast. Sport keeps you humble. It forces you to keep your feet on the ground, to keep working hard at your game and understand that you are not going to win everything. You’ll have to experience defeat sometimes and learn from the experience,” says de Villiers when we meet him a day after RCB lost a close game to Mumbai Indians at the Wankhede Stadium.

The cricketer with 45 international centuries and over 18,000 runs in international cricket has dealt with several ups and downs in his 13-year-old career. Playing in the cash-rich IPL for 10 years since its inception in 2008 is an experience, he says, that will stay with him forever. “Everyone who’s been involved with the IPL has had the opportunity to meet different cricketers from around the world. That is the biggest blessing I’ve had at the tournament. To share the dressing room with the likes of [Virender] Sehwag, [Glenn] McGrath, [Muttiah] Muralitharan, [Shane] Warne… have beer with them at the end of the game, talk about cricket and what happened in their careers and personal life… I don’t think, I know, it wouldn’t have happened but for the IPL,” de Villiers tells Forbes India. “It’s a great tournament to be a part of. It has pushed a lot of money into cricket, created awareness about T20 cricket and introduced a lot of fans to the game, which is fantastic. Also, it’s great for Indian cricket.”

India ranks No 1 in Tests, as per the ICC rankings, while South Africa tops the table in one-day internationals. The might and growing clout of India as a cricketing nation is something that de Villiers is aware of. He minces no words and showers praise when asked about his views on Indian cricket. “I am scared of Indian cricket; it’s just getting stronger and stronger because of the IPL. The IPL has introduced so many Indian youngsters to this great experience of playing under pressure against the best in the world. No other country has that. They [the other countries] are slowly but surely catching up, but India is far ahead of that. I think they have got some great talent, there are some great youngsters coming through always… the future is in great hands,” says the right-handed batsman, who holds the world record for scoring the fastest one-day internationals century off just 31 balls.

An accomplished golfer, swimmer, hockey, football and rugby player as well, de Villiers has also been involved with various charities. His latest association is with luxury brand Montblanc which has named him as its brand ambassador for India and South Africa. Montblanc recently renewed its longstanding partnership with Unicef to improve child literacy and access to education around the world. Its #PassItOn campaign highlights the precious gift of writing and aims to spread the message on social media. de Villiers is only too delighted to be a part of this initiative.  
 
The South African great came out with his book AB: The Autobiography last year which he says took him 14 months to write. The process of revisiting the places where he grew up, had life-changing experiences and has fond memories of was a walk down memory lane for the cricketer. Writing, he says, means a lot to him. And a personal message, especially goes a long way. “It’s much more intimate than just saying something and yet powerful,” says de Villiers. He remembers on the day he made his international debut for South Africa, he received a message on his door from his then teammate Shaun Pollock. It read: “You are good enough to be at this level; enjoy every second, I am right behind you.” de Villiers has still kept that note with him.  

The Unicef charity apart, the cricketer wants to start a philanthropy effort of his own, something that he has been working on, but not finalised as yet. “Charity is a big passion of mine. I’d like to give children what I had while growing up… that’s proper schooling, a roof over their heads, food when they are hungry. Just the basics… which a lot of people in South Africa and around the world don’t have,” he says.

Another thing that cricket fans like him did not have access to while they were growing up were details like knowing what happens in the dressing room and the rigorous preparation involved before a game. de Villiers is helping his fans get glimpses of that through his recently launched app as well as his social media accounts. “I enjoy being active on those platforms. I love sharing videos, some behind-the-scenes content… in a way, it’s giving back to youngsters who don’t know what happens on the sidelines. I have a bit of fun and I love sharing those things with people who enjoy the game and my brand,” he says.

His 4.3 million followers on Twitter, 3.5 million on Instagram and 3.1 million on Facebook indicate his massive popularity globally. In India, especially, he’s loved not just for his 360-degree strokes but also for his simplicity and calm demeanour. But de Villiers found the attention a bit unnerving initially. “It’s something I am getting used to–people actually enjoying you so much. I am quite a conservative kind of guy and I was brought up in a conservative way–I never really enjoyed the attention and people being close to me while growing up. In India, that changed right away and I realised I’m going to have to adapt a little bit,” he says.

The batsman though acknowledges that his popularity is a huge blessing and an opportunity for him to inspire and make his dream come true: To influence other peoples’ lives in a positive manner. “It’s a great responsibility on my shoulders. I am not always in the perfect mood to be open with everyone and just open my door because I also need my private time. But in the same breath, the Indian public has changed my life and I forever will be grateful for that,” he says with humility.

It’s not just the fans but also fellow players who hold the South African in high regard. He says in the last few years, his contemporaries too have asked for his autograph which is a humbling experience. “That means they have a lot of respect for the way you play your game,” says de Villiers. His signature style of batting has left many mesmerised and bowlers the world over scurrying for cover. I ask him if he were to bowl to AB de Villiers, where would he bowl. “Oh! That’s a good question,” he says before taking some time to complete the answer. “There are quite a few cricketers I wouldn’t like to bowl to. But what I can say is to myself and to any cricketer, I wouldn’t want to bowl at the end of the innings… when they are in and when they are on a roll. All cricketers are vulnerable in the beginning, the first over or two. So I’d make sure that I focus a lot on those first balls and try and get me out or David Warner or Virat Kohli early on in the innings.”

It’s not just vulnerability but cricketers across the globe are also susceptible to pressure because of the constant scrutiny on them. Despite the packed schedule, intensity and stress that comes along with playing the game, de Villiers has conducted himself like a role model on and off the field. How does he handle pressure, especially as a leader? “I don’t always keep my cool… I do get frustrated at times. The game can be frustrating,” he admits. “But I’ve got a lot better with that after 5-6 years of captaincy now. I’ve learnt to deal with the ups and downs. It’s better not to show too many emotions when you’re winning and to keep that same kind of level when you’re losing.”  

Given his skills and wide array of blistering shots, you’d expect de Villiers to stride to the crease full of confidence. However, he says he’s nervous in every single game that he plays. “I think all players [get nervous], they’ll be lying if the say they don’t. The minute I stop playing, it [pressure] sort of disappears. But I am always nervous and under pressure to perform,” he says.  

The upcoming Champions Trophy will test his ability to handle that pressure and lead his team. South Africa have won the trophy only once, during its inaugural year in 1998, and the tournament will set the ball rolling for the team’s preparation for the 2019 World Cup. The South African captain is extremely confident of doing well. “There’s not an area where I feel we are a little weak; we’ve got pace bowlers, spinners, wrist spinners and finger spinners, we’ve got batters who are dynamic but also conservative. So it’s a very exciting time for us,” says de Villiers.
 
Cricket has given him fame, stardom and money, but de Villiers is also preparing for the time after he hangs up his boots. “It’s something that I have been working on for nine years now,” he confesses. Though he hasn’t zeroed in on what he’d want to do after retirement, he says he won’t do something that he’s not passionate about. “I will never do something that I don’t enjoy just for the money or any other reason. Even if I don’t get paid, I want to be happy after my career. I want to do something that when I get up every morning, I can’t wait to get to that,” he says. Commentary, coaching? “I won’t say never… but I can’t see myself coaching a team. I still have a lot to give back to [the game], so I’ll be involved with it in some way or another. However, I don’t see myself too involved with the game [after retirement], but I’ll never forget the game,” says de Villiers.

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