A.B. de Villiers: ‘It’s amazing to watch Kohli grow as a leader’

A.B. de Villiers added that Kohli was the best batsman in the world, while rejecting that label himself.

A.B. de Villiers has hailed Virat Kohli as a “true leader”.   -  K. Murali Kumar

A. B. de Villiers may have taken a long break from Test cricket, but it is clear he still holds the format in high regard. His own absence from the five-day game, though, is born out of a desire —at 33— to extend his ODI career through to the 2019 World Cup, and win a major trophy with South Africa. Speaking after launching his new mobile application, AB17, developed by FanHero, here on Thursday, de Villiers was candid in his views on a number of subjects. He discussed his absence from Tests, the quota system in South African cricket, and Virat Kohli's evolution as a leader.

The excerpts


Why an app?

I always felt posting stuff on social media was a little bit impersonal. This app just feels part of me. I can put a lot of exclusive stuff on it and it’s for the real fan, if I can put it like that. I have a lot of followers on Twitter and Instagram and Facebook, but that’s not really “my” fans. But the people who download the app are those who really want to follow me. I felt it was necessary to share very exclusive stuff with those people, who are my die-hard fans. The app consists of videos, photos, news and behind the scenes stuff that not the average fan can see. I also don’t post that stuff on other social media platforms. I’ll try and get into the change-room, do a few interviews with some of my mates. The app is up and running, it’s been going for a week now. There’s lots of stuff going on every single day.

You decided to give Test cricket a miss in 2017. Why?

It’s very simple. It’s been coming for a few years now, where I’ve felt that I had quite a few reasons to manage my cricket a bit. Firstly, my goal is the 2019 World Cup. We haven’t won a trophy like that in an ICC event before. So my focus has changed over the years, and seeing that we haven’t won one yet and looking at my age—I’m 33 now and probably not going to play for another 10 years—so my chances of winning a World Cup are becoming less and less. And there are a few things that stand in my way to get to that World Cup—it’s physical fitness, mental freshness, time with the family, time at home, things like that. For me to stay on the park and stay healthy until 2019, I decided that what’s hardest on my body is Test cricket. It’s five days of cricket and three days of preparation for every Test match, so that’s eight-nine days for one game of Test cricket. In T20s and ODIs you can play a lot more games and it’s not as hard on your body because you get rest between every single match that you play. Test cricket over the last few years has physically challenged me a bit, and that’s probably the main reason. For me to get to the 2019 World Cup, I felt that I just needed to get away from that format a little bit.

You’re close to 10,000 runs in Tests (8074). You may not get there.

I mean no disrespect to anyone who has ever achieved that – but it means absolutely zero to me to achieve 10,000 runs. I don’t care about that at all.

Is Test cricket facing an existential crisis?

The way T20 has hit the ground, it was always going to be a challenge for Test cricket to keep the people involved and interested. But the ICC have got it right in the last few years, not neglecting Test cricket. There's been some unbelievable Test cricket played over the last 5-7 years. Some games I couldn't believe what I was witnessing. I've no doubt in my mind that the format is going nowhere. It's definitely here to stay, for ever hopefully. I love watching Test cricket. As a player, I know it's the real challenge and the real test for a player. If you can survive in Test cricket, then you know you can play the game. I believe the ICC have got it right over the last few years to make sure that Test cricket survives.

Could the importance of ODI cricket decline?

Hopefully not, because I still want to win a World Cup. Hopefully it doesn't go away. (Once we win the World Cup) then it can go. No, I'm kidding (laughs). I think the three formats that we have are very very unique. Every single format is completely different. In T20 you see all the skills, the adrenaline rush and the match-winners coming out of nowhere. In ODIs it's almost a little bit of a taste of both the formats, where the bowler's got more time to work a batsman out, and a batsman has more time to get himself in and then express himself. It's a beautiful format. I wouldn't like to see it go anywhere. And obviously Test cricket. It's a test of endurance and mental skill. All three formats are so unique, and I really think there's room for all three formats to survive in the future.

In his column for the ICC Graeme Smith spoke of South Africa confronting its history in ICC events, saying that the “unfortunate reality for all South African players is the tag that accompanies them at any tournament”. Is that difficult to deal with?

I don’t think it’s ever been difficult for us to deal with. Maybe Graeme found it difficult when he was playing. I see it as a challenge and an opportunity to do something very special. I’ve played for quite a few years, played some amazing innings and we have had some great wins. Unfortunately we haven’t won a tournament yet, but we get a chance in 2017 and another at the 2019 World Cup. I truly believe that we’re not far away. As I say in every tournament, until we cross that hurdle, that question will always come up. I feel our team spirit and our culture is exceptionally strong, which is the kind of thing you need when you carry a tag like that. I truly believe that’s going to carry us all the way.

Does South Africa's quota system affect the team's chances?

It is part of our country. It’s something that in a way is out of the team’s control. We have addressed that issue in our last 'culture camp'. We had a very honest session where everyone just put all their issues on the table, and that’s one of the things that came up. I can honestly tell you that’s something that’s out of our control, it’s out of our circle of trust. And we’ve accepted it as a cricket team and I still believe that we are, if not the best then one of the best teams in the world. With all our challenges and obstacles along the way, it’s something we have crossed and we are excited to move forward.

You have just returned from an elbow injury. Is it hard to make comebacks?

It’s not easy, but it’s a great challenge to get away from the game and then to work hard and work your way back into it. I’ve found inspiration through a lot of athletes who have done that in the past. I think of Nadal in tennis. The way he’s come back has inspired me a lot. He’d been out for quite a long time as well. But that’s part of the game, you come and you go. I’m still motivated to play for as long as possible, and as long as that motivation is there mentally, nothing is going to stop me.

Is it more difficult to recover from injury now than when you were in your twenties?

It doesn’t at all get difficult. I think I’ve been blessed being light on my feet. I’m still agile and athletic. Injuries are part of the game. I’ve always struggled with my back since I was about 16 years old, so it’s something that’s not going to go away. But I work hard at it, to manage it. It’s not now that I’m in my 30s I get all these injuries – it’s something that’s always been part of the game. And therefore one of the main reasons why I wanted to play less Test cricket. I don’t like the words ‘managing workloads’. I think it’s nonsense. I know my body and I know my mind. As long as I’m fresh I’ll play, for as long as possible. I know when I need a break as well.

You have a young family. Was wanting to spend more time with them part of the reason for stepping away from Test cricket?

It's crucial to have a good balance in life in general, when it comes to socializing and working away from the game. Preparing for games, the game itself, time with family...it's really important to get that balance right. It's something I probably haven't got right over the last 3-4 years. Therefore, I'm sitting with a couple of injuries. That's a better way of describing it: balance, balancing your life and having enough of everything to stay fresh. It's not about managing my workload because it's not the only thing my life is about. I've got a lot of areas in my life that I need to attend to. We're getting that balance now. I feel really happy. You can see in the park, I've got a smile on my face again, which might not have been clear in the last few years. It's definitely back and I'm very excited just to play cricket and win games of cricket for my teams.

How did you strike that balance?

Stepping away from one of the formats a little bit, realizing that I'm 33 years old and I've played cricket for 13 seasons, that I need a mental break and also a physical break. If you play international cricket all the time, there's not a lot of time for gym work and preparing and upping your skill. Now that I've moved away from the game, I go back to the nets at my domestic team, I get that opportunity to work on my game again, work on different skills, get stronger in certain areas...all of that. It's great to see that side of the game again.

Where do you work on your skills, all your extraordinary shots?

I don’t practise it a lot. Because of the schedule we have...if you're an international cricketer and you play IPL as well, you honestly have no time at all to work on skills away from the game. Now that I've stepped down from Test cricket for a while, I've had a bit of time in the nets to just showcase my skills, work on that, which is great. But it's something I've developed over the years, on the park. I've had no down-time to go and work on things like that. I was forced to work on it on the park. I don't like to practise it in any way. I feel it's something that comes out naturally. It's almost like I've got to set my foundation and a platform to express myself at the end. Those things just came naturally to me over the years.

Do you look at the gaps in the field and then play?

It's difficult to explain. I try and read the situation. If you've read my book, I speak about it in a full chapter almost. I try and read the situation...what the bowler's trying to do. I look at the captain, at the body language and what they're trying to achieve, the fields they're setting. I can sense when they're panicking a bit. I can sense when they're bowling well and they're competitive. So I adapt myself to certain situations and I try not to miss out on great opportunities where I can take the bowling unit down.

Do you practise all your shots like a bowler does his variations?

I practise my shots. I don't practise the silly, funny lap shots and things like that. There's a time and a place for those shots. So I'll wait for it. When I sense it's the right time, I'll play it. It's not something I can force. I like to keep my basics in place. I always believe cricket is a basic game where you need to have strong coaching-manual shots in place. If you do those well, the rest will follow.

Will you reconsider wicket-keeping?

Definitely not. I'll miss the next five years if I start 'keeping again. My back won't allow that. My back is sore because of all those years of 'keeping.

What is your view on the T20 leagues around the world? Even South Africa is going to have its own T20 league now...

The first thing is to play for South Africa. That's the first priority: to play international cricket. And then where the schedule allows it – this will be different to every player around the world – I think it is a great thing to go play cricket overseas in different conditions and different cultures. For guys who can't play the IPL or different T20 tournaments, it is a great opportunity to play county cricket in England. That's always good for your cricket. So I'm a big supporter of – once your country's cricket is done for the season – going and playing wherever you can to pick up more experience and get better at your game. I have played in the IPL for nine years now, and it has done wonders for my game. So, I always encourage the younger players to – once the season finishes, because that is the foundation and that is where I learnt 90% of my cricketing and mental skills – to go out, play elsewhere and up your skills. Look, I am 33, in a different stage of my career. I can't play in every single tournament. But still for me, international cricket comes first. The formats that I can manage mentally and physically come first to me. Then when I have an opportunity to play in another league around the world it is always great.

Kohli and you have been teammates at RCB for six years now. How has Kohli grown as a leader?

It has been an amazing journey to watch him grow as a leader. I think in the start when the people mentioned to me he has leadership qualities and might become a captain one day I doubted it. I thought he was very emotional. Always a great player, but I thought he was emotional with his reactions. I think he has found a way to deal with it. He is still an emotional character, he loves winning, and is very passionate but he has found a way to really manage that and control that. I know he is a great asset for Indian cricket, he leads exceptionally well. He has showed he has skills with his captaincy and he has taken all the doubters and showed them he can conquer anything. He did not have the best of series with the bat in hand against Australia but what stood out for me was his leadership. He led from the front and showed. I think that's the greatest test for a captain when you don't do well personally. He came through with flying colours. They beat the Aussies and the way they controlled themselves by not going overboard with the celebrations, and looking the opposition in the eye...I think all of those things come from him. He has become a true leader and I am excited to see how he is going to grow in the next five years.

Kohli and you call each other the best batsman in the world. What have you learnt from each other?

I don't think I can be the best batsman. I don't play all formats. He is definitely the best player in the world. He has got competition in quite a few players like Steve Smith, Kane Williamson, and guys like Quinton de Kock coming through. But I truly believe you can be the best player only if you play all formats in cricket. If you are in the top five in all three formats, that's when you know you can really play the game. I am a few years ahead of him. I think I was very similar to him – play the game with a lot of passion, energy, and good skills, working hard at your game, not accepting defeat at all. He is always competitive, he is one of the most competitive people I have ever come across. I was very similar to that. I haven't learnt that from him but it is nice to see the way he plays. That is probably something that I enjoy watching is that passion. He is giving me that passion in the old age. Something he has learnt from me is to control things a bit better, stay calm under pressure, and sometimes to hide the passion a little bit in order to make the clear decisions and the right decisions. We have walked the same kind of road – I have played for 13 years, he has been around for 9 or 10. I think he is on the same kind of road, realising it is not all about passion and energy all the time. You have to step back sometimes and make some clear decisions. I think he really is close to achieving that and that is maybe something he has seen from me.

You received a lot of adulation here in India when you toured in 2015. Were you surprised?

It is difficult to explain that. It takes my breath away completely – what's happened over here in India. I enjoy coming here from the first time I arrived when I was 19-years old at the Commonwealth championships. It is a different culture, different experience, and I love playing in front of these fans. There is so much joy and passion for the game of cricket, so it was great here coming for this Test series [in 2015]. It was my 100th Test as well. I could not have asked for a better reception and a better place to play my 100th Test. I always hold this place (Bengaluru) close to my heart. It will be great to come back here for another 10 years for the IPL...that is a little bit out of the question but hopefully as long as possible.

It wasn’t just Bengaluru...

I know. It's crazy. I don't know. I scored a hundred in a one-day game in Kanpur once, and I couldn't hear my own celebrations. That was how the crowd was – that was crazy. It is a huge privilege and an honour to see that happening.

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