No fear

AB de Villiers wants a licence to thrill, writes David O’Sullivan

When AB de Villiers was suddenly thrust into the South African team at the age of 20, playing his first Test in Port Elizabeth against England and struggling against Steve Harmison and Andrew Flintoff, he realised he’d been in this situation before. At the age of nine.

‘When I was very young, I started playing cricket in the garden against my older brothers, Jan and Wessels [10 and seven years older than AB respectively], and Martin van Jaarsveld [who later played for the Titans and South Africa],’ De Villiers remembers. ‘I had to carry the water and, after a long day, they would finally give me my chance.
‘I was a little ou and they were all in matric. They would try to intimidate me. The bat was actually too heavy for me, and I would rest it on the dustbin while they were walking back to their mark,’ he says. ‘They battled to get me out and they would get so frustrated that they’d bowl a couple of beamers at me to see what I would do.

‘I remember getting a half-century one day, and Jan was so irritated that he couldn’t get this little snotkop out. I always batted last and they wanted to wrap things up, but they couldn’t shift me. I think that’s where I learnt to stand back for no-one, no matter how big or how experienced they were. It was a massive learning curve for me.’

South Africa’s latest prodigy learnt to fear nothing in his own backyard, and because of the early intimidation, De Villiers says he has never felt nervous in a big-match situation. ‘I had a spell against Flintoff when he was bowling very well in my first Test series for South Africa,’ he says. ‘I just couldn’t get the ball away and he was nipping it off the wicket. Visions of my brothers and Martin came flooding back. I was a nine-year-old boy all over again, having to prove himself against the big boys. I wasn’t scared, but I had huge respect for Flintoff and Harmison, the top bowlers in the world. I was able to pull through and get a hundred.’

‘The bowling was harder for me when I was young. The big boys scraped half of the ball so that it swung wildly. It was unbelievably difficult to score runs, but I was able to do well and irritate them. That’s where my confidence comes from. That’s why I can’t really fear any bowlers. I learnt at a very early age to have no fear and stand up to any intimidation.’

While De Villiers cockily suggests he fears no bowler, he is careful to point out that he respects the top players. ‘Murali is one of the all-time greats and I know he can get me out at any time, but there’s no chance I’m going to stand back for him or for any other bowler. I think I’ve shown that. There are times when Brett Lee has run in to me, bowling at 155–160km/h, and I’m still going after him.’

Before De Villiers faced Lee for the first time, he went into the nets and put the bowling machine up to its highest level to get used to the pace. ‘When you walk out to face someone like Lee, the adrenaline takes over. I like the big occasion; I like it when Lee is bowling at full pace and I’m facing the fastest balls of his career. I just think to myself that I must show him he isn’t as quick as everyone thinks. It excites me that I can slog him over midwicket for six. It gives him the message that I’m not some kid who can be intimidated. That’s what I hope I’m doing!’

De Villiers has certainly proved his point. During the ODI in Durban, he hit Lee over the covers for six and, two balls later, pulled him over midwicket for six. Both balls were over 150km/h. ‘It’s all about body language and the way you handle pressure,’ says De Villiers. ‘When I walk out, I try to keep the pressure within myself and play out of my boots. If you can show the bowler you’re in control, you’re winning the battle. He has to work that much harder to get you out. Every time I walk out, I like to look energetic and show them that I’m going to take them on, that I’m going to hurt the bowler.’

De Villiers has remarkable faith in his own abilities, which is driven in part by being inspired by a quote by TE Lawrence. While in matric at Afrikaanse Hoër Seunskool in Pretoria in 2002, he and a group of classmates buried a time capsule on the school grounds during their final exams. In the capsule, they put items that were important in their lives – a first-team rugby jersey and cricket shirt, photographs, messages and a bottle of champagne to be opened in 10 years’ time, when the group retrieves the capsule at a school reunion. One of De Villiers’s important items in the capsule is the quote:

All people dream, but not equally.
Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity.
But the dreamers of the day are dangerous, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible.

‘When I first read that quote, I immediately knew that’s the way I need to approach my life and my sport – dreaming my dreams with my eyes wide open and making them happen,’ says De Villiers. ‘Things happened for me after that. I will never, ever forget that quote. It’s my lucky quote; it’s what I base my life around, and it’s why it’s in the time capsule.’

After three years of international cricket, De Villiers still considers himself to be living a dream. ‘It still feels like week No 1. It’s such a privilege and an honour to play for my country. The feeling I get when I walk out wearing that green jersey is just unreal – it’s such a rush of adrenaline.’

De Villiers’s contribution to the national team stretches beyond his aggressive batting and breathtaking fielding. He’s a rare player who can ignite a team. It’s an ability that wicketkeeper Mark Boucher spotted early in De Villiers’s career and explored to great effect in the home one-day series against Australia.

‘Bouch gets me going in the field,’ says De Villiers. ‘He comes up to me every second over and says, “Listen, bud. I need some energy from you, because if you do something special, you’re going to lift this entire team. Give me something, work with me.” That keeps me going. He’s always on my case from behind the stumps.’

The results were startling. With Boucher’s constant urging ringing in his ears, De Villiers was alert and highly focused. ‘When you’re in that zone, you can pull off amazing stuff – take a brilliant catch, get the incredible run-out. In the Aussie series, I did a few things that amazed even me, and it’s because of Mark Boucher.’

De Villiers singles out a remarkable run-out in Port Elizabeth during the third ODI. Australian captain Ricky Ponting and Simon Katich were settling down in a steady partnership when De Villiers shattered the calm with a moment of individual brilliance. Katich drove a ball from Andrew Hall to extra cover and set off for the single. De Villiers dived, rolled, picked up and, off balance, threw in one movement, hitting the single stump that he might have seen had he the time to look up and take aim. Katich was out for 49, and the potentially dangerous stand was snuffed out.

‘It’s a case of being in the zone, ‘ says De Villiers. ‘Things happen in slow motion when you’re playing at your best. I didn’t see much, but I heard the bails go down. As I got up, I saw these 10 guys running towards me, and I could see on their faces that something amazing had happened. I will break a leg to have that feeling in every game.‘

Comparisons have been made between De Villiers and England’s explosive Kevin Pietersen, but the young South African isn’t aware of such suggestions. However, he recognises something of himself in Pietersen’s style. ‘He plays similar shots. He also takes the bowlers on. Technically, he goes back and across, like me. He picks up a good length ball and plays a pull shot – I like to do that to unsettle a bowler. He’s aggressive and never allows the bowler to settle down.’

More than that, Pietersen is also a player who ignites a team, and De Villiers is quietly confident he has that impact. ‘I like to think I have an energetic effect on the boys. In Sri Lanka we were in trouble on a few occasions, and I came in and took the bowlers on straightaway. I think that rubs off on the guys – well, that’s what the coach told me. I hope that it changes mindsets from defence to attack.’

In both Tests against Sri Lanka in Colombo this year, De Villiers came to the wicket with South Africa being pegged back by the scourge of international batsmen, Muttiah Muralitharan. De Villiers stepped up and proceeded to clobber him around the park. ‘I moered him straightaway. That has an effect on the guys in the change room who suddenly think, “Hey, let’s take them on.”’ Murali took De Villiers’s wicket three times out of four, but the South African still averaged 54.2 for the series.

Whether it’s the cockiness of youth or his deep, unwavering faith in his own ability, De Villiers finds it difficult to explain why he’s able to take Muralitharan on without having faced him extensively in the past. ‘I suppose it’s all in the mind,’ he says. ‘Jonty Rhodes was able to do it. The bowler knew immediately that Jonty wouldn’t let him settle down and would always look for singles and put the bad ball away. I back myself – that’s the way I was brought up.’

At international level, De Villiers is able to play his natural, aggressive game. ‘Any player in the national side has the freedom to play
as he wants,’ he explains. ‘At this level you should know your own game by now, and no-one should have to tell you how to play. If I’ve got a technical fault or error, Mickey Arthur is there to give me advice. But when you’re out there, it’s you and the bowler, and it’s up to you to prove yourself.’

Ideally, De Villiers would prefer to bat up to No 4 in one-day matches, but he’s happy to play where he’s told. ‘I know they want me to bat at six in the Test matches, but hopefully in the future, I will bat at No 4 in both forms of the game. I have the same mindset in one-dayers and Tests: get out there and dominate the bowlers, not allowing them to settle. There has to be a balance between aggression and patience, and that’s something that I must learn. Luckily I’m still young [22] so I’ve still got a long way to go.’

While TE Lawrence has had an important impact on De Villiers’s approach to sport, his religion is crucial to his approach to life. He’s been upset that his faith was once publicly criticised after Mike Haysman interviewed him on TV about his first ODI against Australia. In typical South African style, De Villiers said, ‘Ja, gee, it’s unbelievable.’ Stretching the definition of blasphemy to a new level, a number of churches were offended by De Villiers’s reference to ‘gee’ and phoned to complain. De Villiers is at pains to point out that he takes his religion very seriously. ‘Jesus is everything in my life – he’s the man,’ he says. ‘My faith means more to me than playing for my country. It comes first.’

In 2012, De Villiers and his Affies classmates will dig up their time capsule, 10 years after matriculating. De Villiers will be 28 and, at the rate he’s going, will be a senior in the national team. He will remember a day in grade two, watching the Affies first team in action and precociously deciding right then that this was the school for him and that sport would be his life. He will dig up the TE Lawrence quote and know that he has acted his dreams ‘with open eyes, to make it possible’.