Bengaluru: With its intense travel schedule, high-speed cricket and expectant crowds, the Indian Premier League is an unlikely place to unwind. But for AB de Villiers, among the competition’s master batsmen, it is like an ashram compared with the Test cricket that came before.
We are in bustling Mumbai, where De Villiers and Royal Challengers Bangalore have arrived for a match the following night. The intention is to chat about a tournament he describes as “the most powerful in the world” but South Africa’s historic 3-1 win over Australia last month — with its running verbals, disciplinary hearings, ball-tampering and bans — is impossible to ignore.
“It was rough,” says De Villiers, fresh out of hectic midday traffic and into the team hotel. “But it was the best series I have been a part of. There were scandals that weren’t called for but cricket-wise, the way we dominated was, well, I haven’t been part of a team that has done that to them.”
De Villiers is right. It was a clash for the ages, with the tourists going 1-0 up in Durban and holding the whip hand in Port Elizabeth until his sublime 126 not out in South Africa’s first-innings reply changed the entire complexion. A first home series win over Australia since readmission followed so it is little wonder he holds his 22nd Test century, made against a rampant attack, a reversing ball and with wickets tumbling at the other end, among his greatest performances.
“Sometimes you don’t quite realise what you have achieved until you look back. We were about to collapse like we had in Durban and it was: ‘Here we go again.’ So to get through that and score a special hundred that helped the team to victory was unbelievable. It was one of my best ever.
“It’s not often you get into that kind of zone batting either. I just felt so calm at the wicket. It’s so strange, your head just goes quiet sometimes. Days like that don’t come around very often, so you have to enjoy it.”
Such clarity in the middle is testament to his enviable talent, not least at an age, 34, when lesser mortals can find themselves grimly grinding out runs. It also sits in contrast to a series that even at 1-1, halfway through, had already witnessed enough drama to cram a boxset.
From David Warner’s stairwell fracas with Quinton de Kock — in response to a crude sledge about his wife — to Nathan Lyon throwing the ball on to De Villiers in disrespectful celebration after a run-out, and Kagiso Rabada’s shoulder contact with Steve Smith, the controversies kept coming. Jeff Crowe described the series as the worst he had seen in 14 years as a match referee.
De Villiers says: “It was seriously tough cricket but that’s how Tests should be played. There was all this talk about ‘the line’ and you don’t want to get too personal. But letting a player know there is a series on the line and he is about to lose it for his country, that is part of the game. That’s what we did.
“I felt they got quite personal. Although we had an instance in Durban where one of our players [de Kock] did too ... that’s a long story. But overall, I loved the toughness of the cricket played. It’s just the rest that was uncalled for.”
Was De Villiers, during the Lyon incident in Durban, aware of what the spinner had done as he slid towards the crease in vain? “I was. It was a big moment for them in that first Test because I was in good form. I got a text from Lyon afterwards apologising and, look, he’s not a nasty guy, so I took no offence. It wasn’t a good look for cricket but personally? It didn’t mean a lot.”
Maybe I would have been done [without a break from Test cricket]. Retired. When I came back it was like I was 23 again. It was a dream
Despite the series being a tinder box from the outset, few could have predicted the final destructive twist when the tourists were caught ball-tampering in the third Test at Cape Town and the sky caved in on Smith, Warner and Cameron Bancroft. Year bans for the first two, nine months for the latter — has a strip of sandpaper ever wreaked such damage?
“It was blown up massively,” says De Villiers of the worldwide response. “Yes it is a serious matter but it was taken to a level where it really hurt them individually and I felt sorry for them. Especially Smith, who stood up thinking he was doing the right thing by his players. The way he was punished was harsh.
“Wrong is wrong. Guys try to find a way to get the ball to reverse but you have to stay in the laws. Sandpaper? [he chuckles] Sheesh, I don’t know. I have it in my bag but that’s for cleaning my bat.”
Beyond his sympathy for Smith, what comes across is just how much the Australia win meant to De Villiers.
The South African summer was his return to Test cricket after a near two-year hiatus caused by injury and then a voluntary, indefinite break. Despite a career that places him among sport’s finest De Villiers faced something of a backlash for the latter.
That he was prepared to sacrifice Tests but continue playing in the IPL, where he picks up £1.3 million (Dh6.5 million) a season with RCB, did not sit well among traditionalists. The time off meant six series missed, including trips to Australia and England, but De Villiers is in no doubt it has prolonged his time in the sport.
Would an innings like the one witnessed in Port Elizabeth have been possible without the breather? “Maybe not. Maybe I would have been done. Retired. All I know is when I came back, it was like I was 23 again. It was a dream. That’s how I want to play. You’re not supposed to be going through the motions.
“I had been in a bad place and needed the time away. It’s difficult to explain and probably others wouldn’t understand but everyone’s story is different. Playing for 14 years, having a family, saying goodbye for months — I struggled.
“I just wanted to get away from it all. It’s the entertainment business and people push you up on a pedestal like a hero but I just wanted to be with my family and be normal. I needed a few months to enjoy the basics of life.”
De Villiers’ candour about his mental state should not be underestimated. South African sport is not renowned for its athletes speaking up about such issues and those close to the batsman talk privately about it in strong terms.
And of continuing in the IPL during this time? “I got nailed for that. It was horrible but this is a tournament I cannot miss. I’m not going to sit here and lie to you; financially it is just too good for us as a family. Seven weeks away is not easy and they will come out at some stage. It’s not ideal but it has to be done.
The IPL is a tournament I cannot miss. Financially it is just too good for us as a family
“English and Australian players are paid well, so it’s not always a must to come over. For the rest it is something you have to fit in. If you’re working in South African rands, it’s nice to get a few dollars in the bank.”
Though the exchange rate pulls him in two directions — his IPL deal is reportedly seven times that of his annual retainer with Cricket South Africa — De Villiers stresses he has been well looked after by his country and the supporters back home. The expectation from the latter to play every series can be a struggle, he says, but he recognises a responsibility to them also.
That an all-time great found himself so torn by a sport that has gone beyond saturation point should have been a red flag to its administrators. De Villiers does not profess to have all the answers but says internationally, cricket must become “more clinical”. Less is more, he and many others believe, but things will likely not change before his time is up.
His allegiance to the IPL will not budge and after the month break that follows it, De Villiers will once again meet CSA to plot a route forward. Next year’s World Cup in England is a huge carrot for a player whose dream of lifting the trophy in 2015 was dashed in the semi-finals by New Zealand.
“The main lesson I learnt from 2015 is that a World Cup doesn’t define a player’s career. I was broken after that semi and looking for answers. I’d put way too much emphasis on winning a World Cup. So yes, I’d love to be a part of the winning team in 2019 but if it doesn’t work out, so be it.”
Since we spoke, the man they call Mr 360 for his array of shots has lit up the IPL. His 90 not out against Delhi had him hailed as “the best in the world” by Virat Kohli before an electric 68 from 30 balls against Chennai had the big screen screaming: “AB DELIVERS.”
With his mind clear once more, this South African genius is doing just that.