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Shirin Sadikot in Bengaluru 16 May 2014 - 01:41pm IST

The making of AB de Villiers

The journey of a sports crazy boy who became the most complete cricketer of his time

Every great invention, every tall monument was born as a dream – a dream that was directed by ambition, driven by passion and nurtured with determination, eventually taking a shape of reality. Similarly, many a seed of dream, willed by sheer belief, single-mindedness and hard work, have blossomed into great sporting careers.

One of the best examples of that in modern cricket is Abraham Benjamin de Villiers, the sports crazy boy who dared and succeeded in converting his day dreams into a beautiful reality of establishing himself as the most complete cricketer of his time.

AB de Villiers relived the fascinating journey of his sporting life in an endearing conversation with
IPLT20.com.

Here are excerpts from his interview:

You played a number of sports as a boy. How did cricket win over the others?

I started playing cricket at a very early age, not seriously but for fun and games with my two elder brothers in the backyard. Having older brothers was the best part of growing up for me because they challenged me and pushed me to the limits. They were also always looking after me and showing me the way forward. I played many other sports like rugby, tennis and golf. Cricket was always there but never really in a serious way until I was about 16 or 17, when I joined the colts team in school. I was among the top 20 school cricketers in South Africa, which meant there was a possibility of a future in the sport. I still didn’t think it was a very serious thing, but moving forward, it just got better and better. I made the senior school team, then Under-19 team and got approached by the Nashua Titans coach at that time, David Nosworthy. That’s when I realized that instead of beating around the bush, I might now have to look at cricket as a career path and give it a proper go.

You are an attacking batsman by instinct. Was it hard to find the balance between being destructive and dependable?

Definitely. In the first few years of my international career, it was very difficult. I was 20-years old when I was thrown into the deep in the Proteas side. I wasn’t expecting it at all and I actually had no clue about my game. I had to try hard to find my feet and it was almost unfair. The fact that I was never really dropped from the Test team and sort of survived the first three to five years was a miracle, I think. It took a lot of people, from friends and family to teammates like Graeme Smith, Jacques Kallis, Mark Boucher and Shaun Pollock – guys who were always there by my side when I was in bad form. If it wasn’t for these guys, I would’ve been dropped and probably made a comeback at a later stage. I was very blessed to have their stability as it gave me the opportunity to learn about my game faster than other guys my age did. I was very attacking and that’s when I realised that if I continue playing like this, I might entertain a few people here and there but I might not keep my place in the team for a very long time. That’s when I had to adjust. Cricketers and human beings in general will do anything to survive, and that’s what I did. I adapted.

Is cricket a mental game for you? Do you have any pre-game preparations like visualising or meditation or any such mental exercise?

I’ve been playing international cricket for 10 years now and so many things have changed. I should actually become a coach – I hate coaching and I’ll never do it – but I think I have a lot to offer to young players coming out of school. From a very young age, you are brainwashed that you’ve got to work really hard, eat these many balls, do this and that. But I think the mental side is far more important. I realised that only at the age of 26 and I wished I did earlier, that there are so many things that are more important, like being positive and fresh ahead of your game. I played way too many cricket games being mentally tired because of too much practice before the match. You don’t trust your own abilities and so the day before the match you play more and more balls, field, take a number of catches and go crazy. Eventually, when you go into the game, you’re so tired and fatigued, your muscles are sore and when you reach 20-30 runs, you give up because you can’t go on any more. And you think, ‘Oh my God, where did I go wrong there?’

If only I knew that earlier in my career. I probably work a lot less now but more cleverly. I practice for shorter periods of time but it is more intense. If you’re struggling in a particular area, have 20 minutes of intense training on that specific area and then move on, instead of wasting your time for three-four hours. I would like to give that back someday to someone who is just coming out of school, thinking that it’s all go, go, go. I’d just like to slow him down and say, ‘Listen, the most important thing is to know your own game, find out what your weaknesses are, eat less balls and think more about the game; think of how you are going to be an improved player in the next few years.' That speeds up the process of developing as a cricketer. It is important to go into every game and every innings with the same emotions and the same kind of mindset irrespective of how your last outing was. You just try to understand why you did badly, or well for that matter, in the last match and take that knowledge into the next innings with a fresh and clear mind.

How do you define your zone? Is it a phase you work your way in or does it just come?

You get into it. I have begun to do it more often as I’ve grown older but I still don’t know fully how to get there. For me it’s about being patient and waiting for it rather than forcing myself into it, which I did earlier in my career. Later, I realised that you’ve got to wait for it. Sometimes, it takes 10 balls, sometimes, five overs. I think the most important thing about being in the zone is to recognise your flow for the day. It’s always there, but sometimes, it takes you time to get into it.

How often do you feel like you are in such a space?

The game of cricket will never allow you to always be in the zone – it’s impossible; it’s too tough a game. There are variables that will not allow you to have a 100 percent success rate. I hate statistics but I’ll still try to put a number to it. For the best batsman that has ever lived, the success rate would be about 40 percent. I think once you’ve made peace with the fact that you’ll perform well only four or five out of 10 times – it will actually be less than that for most of us – you’ll be alright.

A few years ago, you said the bigger the pressure, the more relaxed you are. Please elaborate.

I think it was more the case of me playing mind games with myself. The pressure is always there and it is important to challenge yourself that way by saying that you enjoy it. I think it is something no one can prepare you for. I started to experience it very early, at age seven or eight, and learned how to deal with it. When you climb higher levels, it just gets worse and bigger. All of a sudden, I am playing for the Proteas, then suddenly I have this big IPL contract where the pressures are of a different kind; there are these huge crowds cheering for you and expecting you to do well every time. I enjoy those moments because I visualised myself in these situations from a very young age. I used to hit a lot of tennis balls against the wall, just playing by myself and imagined I was playing a Wimbledon game. I could feel the crowd cheering for me, could hear the noise and I created that pressure inside my head. I talked to myself while hitting the balls, almost giving running commentary. It was more like day-dreaming than serious visualisation. But I think doing those sorts of things and expecting pressure at a very young age meant that I was prepared when I was actually faced with these moments.

You have amazing hand-eye coordination. Is it the result of playing sports like rugby, tennis and golf at a very early age?

To a good extent, it is a natural talent; I was definitely gifted with the talent for balls and it was developed at a very young age because of the exposure that was given to me in all kinds of sports from my family. There was always some kind of sport going on every single day of my life – whether it was at school or home, it was just never ending and crazy. Tennis played a big part; I played it every single day growing up. My mum was a tennis coach and she pushed me quite hard at it. Tennis is really good for your hand-eye coordination and I think a lot of shots I play come from tennis as well.

Justin Langer told me that a batsman’s routine is his bible. Does it stand true for you?

I think each one is different there. That’s Justin Langer and it’s his character. I, on the other hand, like to keep things fresh. I do follow a certain kind of routine, I’m not a 100 percent sure. I just go with whatever I am comfortable with on that day. I definitely don’t have a routine that’s my bible because I don’t like to stick to things like that. But I do believe that I play in a certain way and I don’t go too far away from that. At the same time, there’s always room for creativity and improvement. So, I don’t really like to close myself too much. I’d rather keep the doors open, explore new things and find new avenues.

You’ve batted at various positions in all formats. Has that helped you become the versatile batsman you are today?

There’s good and bad in that. I think I learned a lot through that, but from age 20 to 25, being pushed around the batting order cost my stats a lot. I was always jumping around, not knowing where to go, not knowing my own game – I’m batting at 7, then 3 and then I’m opening the batting and one day I am keeping wicket! So, it was difficult to maintain a good profile and my average was going down. I am not blaming anyone or anything but I’m just saying that it was very, very tough. That was the down-side of it. The good side was that I was learning how to adapt and was challenging myself in different situations all the time. Now, I think I am reaping the rewards, especially in the T20 format, of playing in different situations and batting at different positions. Now I realise it wasn’t such a bad thing after all, to jump around a bit initially.

Has keeping wicket helped you gain a fresh perspective of your own batting and the game overall?

I think it definitely played a role without me knowing. You get a good view from behind the stumps of how the bowlers plan and how they think. It was also nice to be catching balls continuously as that again helped in the hand-eye coordination. I think 'keeping has been one of the best aspects of my cricket and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

Jonty Rhodes once told me he is so against you keeping wicket because he felt the team lost out on it’s best fielder. Agree?

I love fielding! Yes, I am always involved in the game from behind the stumps and can also influence the game in a bigger way, but I really enjoy fielding. I can see where Jonty is coming from because I idolised him growing up and I loved the way he fielded. I would never be as good as him – he was at a totally different level. But I’d like to follow in his footsteps as closely as I can and I will do that until the day I finish playing cricket.

You were thrust into the role of a senior player in the Proteas side at the age of 24. Did that mean you had to mature before your age as a cricketer?

I started to play early and was accepted by the senior players of the team as one of the guys who likes to think about the game and not just play and move on. I had the respect of the senior players from very early in my career and that motivated me to get involved. I never saw myself as a senior player at the age of 24-25, but that’s when Graeme started pulling me in saying, ‘You need to take more responsibility in certain areas. You’re no more a 20-year-old, even though you play like one and act like one at times. You’ve been playing for four-five years now and it’s time you took part in certain things that happen in the team dynamics that will push you and help you grow.' That’s how things panned out and I was among the big boys at 25-26. And it has been a huge honour.

Let’s talk about some of the outrageous shots you play. The scoop over fine-leg to a fast bowler: dangerous shot to play not only in terms of getting out but it also poses physical danger. How often do you practise that shot in the nets?

I don’t pratise it at all; I have never practised that shot in my entire life! It has only come out in the games. But again, to come back to your earlier question about Justin Langer, that’s exactly the reason why I don’t have strict routines. I, sometimes, just have to allow myself to play to the situation. In one game a few years ago, I felt the need of scoring a boundary right away and I wasn’t hitting the ball well on that day. The best option for me then was to try and use the bowler’s pace and hit it where he wouldn’t expect me to. It came off. I’ve gotten out playing that shot, but I never lost faith in the fact that I can play it. It’s really served me well over the last few IPLs. The fine-leg fielder stands up in the ring most of the times and it’s an easy boundary option. As far as the physical dangers go, you can get hit off any ball, playing any other shot when facing the fast bowlers. If you keep your eye on the ball, more often than not you will not get hurt.

Do you see yourself as a finisher or would you fancy batting in the top order, even in the T20 format?

I’d love to play all kinds of roles, no matter the format. If the captain asks me to play a particular role, it just gives me confidence to know that he has chosen me because he thinks I am the best man for it. There’s a reason why he wants me to open the batting or finish the game, so I’ll go and show him that he’s right. Like I said, I don’t like to limit myself and I love to keep the options open. Obviously, I’d love to score hundreds but it’s just not possible when you’re batting at 5 or 6 in T20 cricket. The Orange Cap goes out of the window because you don’t bat enough. But those are the kind of sacrifices you make for the team and it also gives you the opportunity to be there to hit the winning runs, like Dhoni does. There’s nothing more rewarding than being there in the end, holding a bat in your hand, knowing that you’ve finished the game for your team. That’s probably the most difficult job in cricket. A lot of people say it’s opening the batting, which is also true, but I think finishing a game of cricket comes with a lot of pressure. It’s an honour to be able to perform that role, and hopefully, I’ll have many more.

What does it feel like to be almost perfect?

I’m certainly not an over-confident guy. I know that like all humans, I’ve got my weaknesses and insecurities. There are areas where I’m not as good as some of the other players are. You just try to hide and minimise those weaknesses and maximise and display your strengths. I am always very critical of my performances even though I don’t show it and people won’t know it. When I don’t finish games, I’m quite hard on myself and I don’t enjoy it when it happens that way. That’s probably part of the reason why I do succeed sometimes. When you’re disappointed, it makes that will to succeed so much bigger and you’re so much hungrier to do well. I still feel there’s a lot more room for improvement and there are still areas I can finish games better and win not only matches but tournaments. I will continue to dream. That’s what we humans are like.

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