Everybody loves Fanie
Of all South African cricketers, I remember Fanie de Villiers best. He was a beautiful outswing bowler and bowled effective offcutters to mix them up. He got Sachin Tendulkar out a number of times in limited-overs cricket, caught at short midwicket, with the slightly slower offcutter, which became a template for bowlers for some time during the mid-nineties. Most of all, though, I remember how, during the Titan Cup in 1996, he would stick the old ball up his armpit and use the sweat from there to shine one side of it.
When I met him it was only natural that I asked him about that. Also, didn't the others find it disgusting? "They were wiping it on their arse," de Villiers shoots back. "No they didn't have any problem.
"Everybody sweats. Guys are doing that too [he rubs his forehead and then rubs the hand on an imaginary ball]. It's similar." And wait for this one. "Spit is worse than armpit." And he makes a mock guttural sound before pretend-spitting on his hand and rubbing it on the ball. "Khrrgghh."
Wherever he toured, the people loved de Villiers. He was always chatting to the crowds from the boundary, playing tricks with the umpires, and travelling on his own in foreign countries.
De Villiers once bit David Shepherd's ear to get an lbw call. "One of our rugby players [Johan Le Roux, in 1994] bit the ear of the New Zealand captain [Sean Fitzpatrick]," de Villiers remembers. "It was in the paper that day, and the same day I bit David Shepherd's ear because he didn't give me an lbw decision. And he was screaming and I was holding on and he was pulling. And the ear stretched out that far from his head. And the next day, the Sun paper said, this is an old South African problem. The picture was in the paper and David signed it for me. In a Test match." The crowd had a ball.
During that tour de Villiers went to his county, Yorkshire, for a Test. When he had first gone there, as a young Afrikaner who couldn't speak English, he learned a lot of tricks but had a tough time with the local dialect. "Difficult, but I communicated. I fought. I couldn't hear a flippin' note. They sounded pissed every time."
Back to Headingley in 1994 and this happened. "I was signing autographs, and I looked up and Allan Donald bowled the ball. The ball came my way and I ran and picked it up and someone's autograph book was in my one hand, and it was yellow and red, very shiny. It was the end of the over and I kept it in my pocket. I bowled my first ball, I bowled my second ball, and the third one was lbw - and not out. I kind of remembered I had this book with a yellow-and-red thing, and I pulled the book out and red-carded the umpire. And the Long Room behind me went boo. Old-school ties. The rest of the crowd loved it. So I went past him [Shepherd] and red-carded the long room."
Once in England a paper cup flew onto the ground, and he put the ball in the paper cup and bowled. Chaos. First ball of the game.
I want to know what makes such fun cricketers such fun. To my slight disappointment, I find out it was not all spontaneous.
"What you need to also realise [when we were readmitted], we were good ambassadors," de Villiers says. "At the age of 29, you have got a university-of-life degree. You can swing people easier than when you are young. When you are young, you are scared to do anything wrong. You are worried about the coach and the manager. You are worried about everything. But when you are older, you say the right thing at the right time in the right place.
"I had finished my studies, I had done my army training. The chances we took on the field to get the public on our side were very calculated. How many times did we have tea time in a Test and three or four of us stayed on the field and said to the security guys, 'Relax man' and got the kids on the field and gave catches to them. And then we would give them our caps. That's a clever way of getting the crowd on your side.
"I started the Mexican wave in Sri Lanka. Everybody went for tea and I stayed on the field. I said, 'Boys sit down.' Then I said, 'You guys stand up.' Then they went like that. Then I went to the next stand and said, 'Stand up.' Then they went a little bit and it stopped there. And I was like, 'What is flippin' wrong with you?' I kind of mobilised the people. And the crowd loved me. Because I tried to do something with them. What do the players do nowadays? They don't even look at the public."
It didn't stop on the field. De Villiers was known for his exploits off it too. "I always would get on a train, or get into a tuk-tuk and say to the tuk-tuk driver, 'Take me to your house.' That was in Kolkata. And he didn't know what to do. And he took me and I sat there with him, we had lunch and then started playing cricket out in the street.
"I got [Daryll] Cullinan on a train with me in Sri Lanka, and we got off it and started playing cricket with the kids."
Jonty Rhodes got picked on a lot. "We would steal Jonty Rhodes' shirts and swap them for beer from the breweries. For a Jonty Rhodes shirt they would give anything. We were like, 'We want a case of brandy, a case of whiskey and six cases of beer.' We had been doing it for three years when he found out about it. We did this around the world. Every Friday he would go, 'Chaps, I have lost another shirt. Please help me.'"
Perhaps de Villiers chose to have much more fun with his cricket than others because it came to him the hard way. He was an Afrikaner from the countryside who didn't know any English. "Language is a terrible barrier," he remembers. "It is a massive barrier. More than one can think. I learned English at school, but I could only understand and read and write. When I spoke English, I sounded stupid. As an Afrikaner, sitting there, checking everybody out - these English-speaking boys plus West Indians. It was tough."
Most of his playing days were during apartheid. Then, too, he almost lost his eyes in an accident with lime when he was a lieutenant in the army. "I was blind for six-seven days and layers burned off, and it slowly started coming back again. They literally tied me to a bed, held me upside down and threw water into my eyes. Probably for three hours, four hours. It was so sore, I couldn't close my eyes, I couldn't open my eyes. Unbelievable. It's amazing how you can go through that."
De Villiers went through it and more. When he was younger, he did his back in throwing a javelin. He had to get cuts on his back to fuse three vertebrae. That made his hamstrings stiff. That, along with the javelin-throwing, also perhaps explains his action.
"I wasn't the best athlete," he says. "Over 100 metres I think Ben Johnson would have beaten me by 20 metres. What I did right was, I used to run in hard and create pace through muscles. I didn't get it as easy as others. That made me appreciate it more than the guys [who were] getting it for nothing. But you are right, my action was all hands and… [ mocks his own action]."
De Villiers was one of the first Afrikaners to break the language barrier, as opposed to the "few who went to privileged schools". "I was a country boy."
After a long wait came readmission, when he was the best bowler in the country - only for Ezra Moseley, a West Indian professional at Northern Transvaal, to break de Villiers' toe with a low full-toss in the nets. No one from your country has played international cricket for 20 years, and when the chance comes, you injure yourself in the nets. Born on Friday the 13th was de Villiers.
However, the man who charmed the crowds the world over in his playing days isn't quite popular in his country now that he is an outspoken media person. He writes in the foreword of his book that he thinks he is considered "negative, jealous and miserable". Some go so far to call him insensitive regarding race issues. It will take a lot more understanding of South Africa and its cricket before I can make my mind up on that. Until then I will know him as a cricketer who went through a lot in his life but never forgot his prime job was to entertain the people who paid good money to come to the grounds.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at Cricinfo