AB de Villiers on 360-degree game, retirement, and playing with Kohli

The South Africa legend says he got to a stage where he felt he had to get away from the international cricket scene, spend more time with his family and just stay sane!

If you do manage to get away with a shot — and that’s changed over the years — you try and stick to it as long as you can, until it sort of mistreats you!   -  K. R. Deepak

Abraham Benjamin de Villiers may not be the kind of cricketing superstar Indians are accustomed to. ABD, though, is a genuine modern-day legend of the game and among its all-time greats. He has multiple records against his name, can make the most difficult of shots look ridiculously easy and butcher the ball all around, all with a smile.

But the South African insists he is still “a long way from being perfect” and all the adulation sits lightly on him. In a detailed, exclusive interview with Sportstar, de Villiers spoke on a range of subjects — on being a player, his family, his journey with Royal Challengers Bangalore in the Indian Premier League and Virat Kohli.

The 360-degree man — how does that label sit on you personally?

That is an interesting question to start off! To be honest, I didn’t try to get that name when I started playing cricket; it automatically happened with the way I played. But I think there is a method in madness. You have got to adapt to different situations, both in life and in cricket. After 15 years of playing international cricket and travelling around the world, I realised you have to adapt to all kinds of situations on and off the pitch. That’s just the way it all happened. All the different shots I play, that’s all about survival in the game and staying ahead of the pack and have the skill to be able to adapt. That’s the most important thing and I think that’s where the ‘360’ comes from, so it is nothing special.

I have never seen myself as a celebrity, says A. B. de Villiers.   -  Special Arrangement

ABD, as an acronym, is as recognisable as SRT across the cricketing world. How do you handle all the popularity, the adulation?

Well, I am a family man and very close to my parents, my wife, kids, my two elder brothers. That’s where I find my peace in a way; that’s where I get re-energised and recharged. I was brought up in a very humble manner. That was sort of labelled into my system, and my family will never allow me to get ahead of myself, especially my brothers! I am the youngest of three and I was never going to be arrogant as an individual.

As for the spotlight, I will never get used to it. I have never seen myself as a celebrity or someone who’s achieved a lot of stuff with my cricket. I just play the game because I love it and whatever comes with it I try to take it as a reward for playing it. It’s just one step at a time.

You come from a system of training where there is a lot of emphasis on basics. How does all the improvising fit into a technically perfect batting technique?

I am a long way away from being perfect, but I have always put a lot of emphasis on basics. Once you have the basics in place as a foundation, it’s always easier to find new shots and do different things and be creative in a way. It’s a natural thing. To be very honest, I have never really practised all those different shots that I play. They come out only because I always want to win for the team. I am always a team man and when you are pushed into a corner, where you have to perform for other people, where the guys are desperate in a way, and that’s where I found myself a few years back and had to come up with stuff to raise my game and win for my team.

So those incredible shots were all about necessity, not desire to try something different?

Absolutely. I have never wanted to try different things just for the sake of it. It literally comes as a natural thing when I am playing, in the heat of the moment when it’s a battle between bat and ball. It has never been about wanting to be in the spotlight or wanting to be different; it’s always been about how I can get a boundary for the team!

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Can you try and explain some of your ‘improvised’ shots? Do you also have a bread-and-butter shot, as it were, that is your favourite?

That’s the thing about cricket —once you get out in a certain way, it sort of plays on your mind and same it is with shots. If you do manage to get away with a shot — and that’s changed over the years — you try and stick to it as long as you can, until it sort of mistreats you! Then you tell yourself, ‘I will let that shot go and we will see maybe it comes back after a few months.’ All these shots, once I get out, I put it in the bag for a while.

But go-to shots are go-to shots, and under pressure I always think what are my strengths and more often than not I do that. But it also differs from game to game, depends on the pitch, the bowler I am facing and what he is trying to do. I always try and read the situation. I love to play the lap shot, the scoop shot off fast bowlers in the death, when they bowl yorkers. I try to unsettle them, make them change their plans. It is pretty unique and you have to be gutsy to do that, sort of put your body on the line. But that’s how I have always played the game so I enjoy that.

The de Villiers family watching the match between Royal Challengers Bangalore and Kolkata Knight Riders on April 5.   -  K. Murali Kumar

 

Your take on the extreme emphasis on fitness and all the different tests and their scores in current times? Is there a one-size fits all exercise in modern cricket?

It definitely is not the most important thing in cricket. The key word is balance. I have never been a fitness freak, never been a cricket freak either. I have always felt the need to have a balance in life. I know what I need to do to be the best player I can be and that is important — to understand your game, understand what works for you. I know what works for me in the gym, in practice sessions, and knowing that takes time.

I have played internationally for 15 years. I know now where I have to go when I get to the nets and in the game to save my energy. Certain exercises work for me, but you have to go through your paces as you grow up as a cricketer. Things change all the time.

With the World Cup ahead, do you regret your decision to retire last year, given that you are still extremely fit and playing so well?

No. There is 100 percent satisfaction. It would have been nice to play the World Cup again, but when I retired, it was another 12-14 months out and there was absolutely no way I could have played for another 12-14 months internationally. I got to a stage where I felt I had to get away from the international scene, spend more time with my family and just stay sane! I am very happy where I am at the moment — I play a couple of months, spend some months with my family then go out and play again. The international schedule would never allow that. But yes, playing the WC would have been nice.

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Is not winning the World Cup one of your big disappointments despite being part of some extremely talented sides?

Definitely not. It would obviously have been nice to be a World Cup-winning side, but there are absolutely no regrets. The 2015 edition, 2011, 2007 World Cups I played, all have been great journeys and part of me growing up, both as a player and as a person. Looking back, I had a lot of fun over the years.

About this year’s World Cup, any favourites or a team you would put your money on?

Not really. It is very difficult to pick a favourite. I think there are a lot of teams capable and that makes it a very open tournament. India has won the Champions Trophy in England, Pakistan won the last one there, Australia has won a lot of World Cups, England is the host, New Zealand always does well at World Cups, South Africa has a very good bowling attack — that’s six teams already I feel can win! I am simply looking forward to watching some exciting games through the tournament.

We stay next to each other in hotels, my kids play in his room, he is a great human being and we get along really well and look out for each other, de Villiers says about RCB teammate Virat Kohli.   -  AFP

Coming to the IPL, you have been one of the constants for Royal Challengers Bangalore, along with Virat Kohli, over the years. How would you describe your journey over the years?

I really feel I have been very lucky to be part of this franchise. I can’t see myself being with any other franchise while I am still playing cricket. It’s been a great ride.

And how would you describe playing alongside Kohli all these years, his growth as a person and a player and captain?

Well, he is a fantastic person and we are very close friends. We stay next to each other in hotels, my kids play in his room, he is a great human being and we get along really well and look out for each other. We’ve got each other’s backs.

I think he’s grown exceptionally well as a captain over the years. I think he is brilliant and leads from the front by example. I am actually looking forward to watching him grow in the next few years and he still has a long way to go. He’s achieved so much already. It’s difficult to even think he is still going to grow, but he truly is amazing.

His overt aggression has both admirers and critics. How do you see that, given that you are never seen being in-your-face aggressive? Are you two like fire and ice?

Not really! I think we are very similar. It’s just that I have found a way to hide my aggression better than him, but I have also had more experience! I have certainly had my moments through my career, just that most people now don’t remember them! But honestly, we are both very competitive, we both love winning. He will surely get there, I think he has managed very well so far.

He is captain of India in all three formats; there’s a lot of responsibility on his shoulders and it is always difficult to bottle that up. And I think, in a way, to show all the emotion is actually fantastic, there’s nothing wrong about it. It just shows that you are human and that what you do for a living actually matters to you. It is great, but he will just grow from strength to strength as a player and as a person.

As one of the modern legends of the game, your one piece of advice to the next generation?

Be humble. It’s just that. Simple. Be humble and everything else will come through.