'I've let go of that fear of failing'
It has been said in cricket circles that AB doesn't know. That AB de Villiers doesn't know how he does it. He knows how to do what he does, but doesn't really know what it is about his game that enables him to do it. You know, play all kinds of innings in all kinds of situations in all kinds of formats. Well almost. Our correspondent spoke to the man the week before the first Test of the series, his 99th, in South Africa's team hotel in Chandigarh. De Villiers' answers are revealing, as much as for what he says as for what he doesn't.
What have been the most significant influences on your batting?
Lots of guys have played a part in helping me, but ultimately I educated through the hardships myself. I went through the bad form myself. And I can mention 200 people who have had an influence on my career and my batting. I literally can. I can name all of them.
Significantly, in the team, Kallis, because our techniques are similar. He helped me a little bit sometimes. Boucher. I am not going to start because I might end up literally mentioning a lot of people. Every single guy somewhere along the line played a part in helping me with my career. Not only in my batting but a lot of other stuff. Once again, the advice I give any youngster coming through and talking to me is to learn himself.
Did you have to make significant technical adjustments after coming into international cricket?
No, not really. Understanding my strengths and weaknesses has been the biggest thing. I didn't understand these kinds of things when I came into international cricket. My technique and my talent have always been there, and just understanding what kind of shots I can play on different wickets. Getting to know my own game has been the biggest thing. Some guys take longer to know their own game. Some guys pick it up very quickly.
When did you start believing you got to know your game well?
Two thousand and eight. That's when I started to develop my defensive game. It became a lot more difficult to get me out. That's been key to me.
What happened in 2008?
I don't think there were too many things I didn't know about. A lot of things came naturally to me. I learnt my defensive game in 2008. That was new to me. Before that I played for four and a half, five years without knowing exactly what was going on. Still, having the ability, the talent, to clear the boundary when I needed to, playing with a very competitive edge, loved winning from a very young age. I understood how teams worked from the word go, and a lot of things I did know, except for my strengths and weaknesses as a batsman.
How did you learn about those?
I felt it was difficult to keep me from scoring, but it was easy to get me out because eventually I would make a mistake because of my attacking nature. So just having that hunger to eliminate those kind of weaknesses.
Was there a certain shot or a certain kind of delivery that was landing you in trouble?
I was getting out lbw a lot. I think people still try it these days, but I think I am a lot better now. I think in 2005, Mark Boucher approached me and he told me that a lot of teams were going to try to get me out lbw because they feel I am weak straight. He planted a little seed in my head that defensively I am not very good. All it takes is to bowl straight at me for long periods of time and I will get out. So I wanted to eliminate that, and I had the hunger to turn that around.
How did you go about doing it? Just working hard in the nets or by making technical tweaks?
Just hard work, I think. Lots of hours of practice. Hunger. The desire to turn it around. It was never part of my game before, to play a ball late and to block it. I always wanted to either look to score a boundary or come down really hard at the ball.
But if you want something in life and you go after it, you tend to get closer to it than you think you can.
Before I knew it, in 2008, I was playing in Ahmedabad, in a Test match, and that's when I played the late defensive shot for the first time in my life.
What I discovered about my batting in 2008 was monumental and integral to my batting career.
Your first innings of note in international cricket was when you batted out 32 overs to save a Test against England. When you came in at that time, you needed around 200 in 47 overs. Obviously you didn't think of a win back then, right?
I was just thinking of surviving. I had no idea what was going on.
Eleven years on and close to 100 Tests later, with all what T20 experience has taught you about your game and bowlers around the world, and about the batsman that you have become, would you go for that target on a good pitch and considering you are coming in at No. 6 and not No. 8, as you did in that Durban Test?
Yeah. Absolutely. No doubt about it. I'd definitely find a way to get as close. My motto would be, if I bat through I would come close anyway. I know how to score my runs without taking too many risks. Similar to what we did against India at the Wanderers.
How did you approach that chase [South Africa nearly got to 458 in the fourth innings, in 136 overs]?
Exactly like I told you now. I tried to bat through, knowing that we [Faf du Plessis was the other batsman] would both score naturally, at a good rate, which we did. There is always a time when the bowlers start feeling a bit of pressure, the momentum turns around.
Is it because you knew there was too much time to bat out? May as well keep scoring and keep the catching fielders out…
No. Not at all. I knew we could bat the overs out. It was just one day. We had more than one day at Adelaide [South Africa played out 148 overs for just 248 runs to hang on for a draw]. We knew we were capable of doing it. No, the time was definitely not a problem. It was difficult but we knew it was possible for us to bat through. The thing about the Wanderers is, it is difficult to stop runs. Knowing that we just needed to bat time, it showed we kept scoring without really trying too much.
When you come in with the score under 100 for 3 or 4, you average 53. And if it is 50 or fewer for 3, you average 64. What is the mindset when you go out to bat in such situations?
My mindset in all three formats, in any situation, is exactly the same. I just want to get myself in, get myself a nice foundation to hopefully attack and dominate the bowlers. After a period what I call - let's say a period when you have got to earn the right to dominate the bowling. In some innings it takes one ball, sometimes it takes 10 overs, sometimes five overs… In the warm-up game against not such a strong team it took me more or less 15 overs to feel that I am in. Whereas against the first [full-strength] Indian team that I played in Mumbai [in the ODI], after two balls I felt in. It changes.
Every time I go out to bat I have got the same mindset. Nothing changes. All the formats. Any situation of the game. I just look at the scoreboard and I try to figure out what's required for the team. Do they need me to stay around? Do they need me to bat for 10 overs, 20 overs? Must I be attacking from the word go?
How do you know you are in? Is it a certain shot that you can play? What is the internal sign that you are in?
Just a moment you feel comfortable. You have seen what they are throwing at you, you have encountered all of it, they haven't got you out yet and then it takes an over from a bowler to show a bit of weakness, and then I get a bit of momentum on my side and that's when I start going.
Is there any particular shot?
No, there is no shot. It's just a feeling of understanding the flow of the game, of understanding what's required, and then feeling comfortable within my game plans to achieve that.
You have got to be the most versatile batsman of all time. I don't know how Bradman or Sobers would have reacted to different formats, but you have scored runs in all formats, you have scored 30-ball hundreds and played 220 balls in Adelaide for just 33 runs. What is it about your game that allows you to do all this?
I play for the team. I can leave the answer right there. If I get 30 off 200, [it is] because that's what's required for the team. In order for us to win matches, draw matches, whatever is necessary.
But your game has to allow you to do that, right? You need to have that technical foundation…
Yeah, but it will allow you if you have got the desire and the commitment to the team. Then you find a way to make it work.
I am serious. Not even joking. Sounds like the humble and noble answer, but it's a fact.
But you are the only one managing to do this.
Then the others must, maybe, start playing for the team.
You spoke of a lot of hard work in the nets. What do you set out to do in a nets session?
I just try to feel good. I try to just cover the bases. I don't practise a lot of shots. I keep it very simple. I hit a few straight balls. If I got out in a certain way and I feel uncomfortable about a certain shot, I maybe hit a few of those shots. I keep it very short and sweet and intense. I try and create the same kind of intensity that I would play with in the middle. I try to put the bowlers under the same kind of pressure when I am in the nets. I bat for 10, 15, sometimes 20 minutes at most. That's it. That's all I practise.
You don't try your reverse sweeps, etc?
Never played a reverse sweep in my life before in the nets.
All straight away in the match [Laughing]?
[Smiles] The desire to score boundaries. If it's big enough, you'll find a way.
For a natural boundary-hitter such as you, did Adelaide take an extra special effort?
It was very difficult, yes. I felt a lot of pressure. I just didn't want us to lose the Test match. I knew it was going to take a big effort from us to get through that one. But I also knew that if we fought for long enough, it would turn around eventually, which it did in the next Test match.
If you looked at the scoreboard, the situation required for me to stay in for as long as possible, and that's all I did. I am not going against what I am saying. It's just that we didn't need to score runs. I had no ambition whatsoever to get a fifty or a hundred in that game. It showed. I didn't even run for some of my runs.
Did that innings take more out of you than scoring a quick double-hundred?
I don't know. It's similar kind of commitment to the cause. I think it's similar except for the fact that I didn't spend as much time at the crease as I would for a double-hundred. A double-hundred takes 300-350 balls.
Sometimes, for you, 150 balls…
I don't think I have ever scored a double in 150. I am capable of that, but it has never been required of me to do that.
Just going back to your first year in international cricket. You said, "I enjoy the pressure because sometimes I can get too relaxed and give my wicket away." And when you scored that 278 in the UAE, you had said earlier in the year that you wanted to be the best batsman in the world, but you said that you said so because you wanted to push yourself out of that comfort zone. Now it is tough to imagine you being too relaxed…
[Laughs] No, I think my record shows I never get myself up when there is nothing on the line. There has always got to be something on the line. I think in the beginning - no offence against Bangladesh and Zimbabwe, they are much better teams now, but back in the day I could never get myself going against those teams. Because I never felt that challenge. We were always going to win those games. I never felt that I needed to have an impact in order for us to win a game. Those are the kind of things I am talking about. That gets me going. I want big-pressure moments, I want to feel that I can make a difference in us winning the game.
That started a long time ago. In the back garden with my brothers. There was always something on the line for me. Still the same. So me saying something like, "I want to be the best batsman in the world", without me knowing it, I challenged myself. Those dead-rubber games became more important because I wanted to be the best. So I maybe should have said that much earlier.
It wasn't complacency. I wanted a competitive game of cricket. When I didn't feel the competition there, it was difficult for me to get going. Cause, why am I required? I mean I don't have to perform. We are still going to win anyway.
You said you want to do well for the team, which is why you can adjust your game to different situations. How important is technique then?
It's not the be-all and end-all. Lots of guys have shown in the past that technique is not everything. There are lots more important things than technique. I don't think my technique has always been perfect, and it's still not perfect. There's still areas that I can work on. But I feel comfortable. And that's the most important thing. So I think technique is not that important. There are a lot of other areas of your game that are more important. Why do you get out sometimes? Why do you perform sometimes? That's much more important than technique.
What is your perception of risk?
You get different levels of risk. You get high risk, you get low risk. You got low risk with big reward. You get high risk with low reward. Those are the silly shots. I don't know, I think there is risk in a lot of things. Just a matter of how much risk there is. Not scared of it anymore. I used to be maybe a little bit scared of taking risks when I was younger, not knowing what kind of impact it will have on my career. Now, I think, in the last few years, four, five, six, even seven years, I have let go of that fear of failing or not succeeding. Knowing that there are way more important things in life than just playing cricket and performing. Understanding that makes you a better cricketer already.
When you are playing a reverse sweep, when do you decide you are going to play it?
It's a build-up. I get the feeling. I don't know, it changes. Sometimes before the bowler has bowled, sometimes while he is running in. It changes. Sometimes in the first over that I face, I feel that in a few overs' time I will be able to reverse-sweep the guy. It is never the same.
You can always adapt and pull out of the shot, but you make up your mind before he has bowled. The latest is when he is in his run-up.
Do you feel it is riskier to reverse-sweep than to play the regulation sweep?
No it's similar. Similar. Same kinds of risks. You can still top-edge the ball. You can get out lbw.
All the moving around doesn't add to the risk?
Nah, similar amount of risk. All the ways of getting out are the same. Just a matter of whether you can execute it properly.
How strong is your left hand?
Similar. A little bit less than my right.
What goes on in your mind when you are taking guard?
Very basic. Watch the ball. The other day in the warm-up game, I was telling Dane Vilas, who was batting with me at the time, that the last few overs I forgot to watch the ball. That's 100% my first thing I think about.
Do you have to tell yourself that?
I have to remind myself sometimes. When I am not batting well, I am forgetting to watch the ball.
Are there any thoughts you want to drive away?
Nah, not really. I have played enough now to understand when to drive risky shots away and when to go after them. It is just experience. When you get to know your own game really well, things happen a little slower. Pressure situations don't fly past you. It really slows down a lot more. You have more time to make good decisions. Sometimes it will come off, sometimes it will not.
How closely do you watch the game when you are not batting?
I watch every ball. I try and get as much information as possible. Every ball. That's one of the most important things.
Do you watch intensely?
I play intensely, I don't watch as intensely as I play. I do keep an eye on the game and try to figure out what will be the best way to approach my innings.
Do you still have any doubts and insecurities as a batsman?
Every game. Every single game. Every single time I play, doesn't matter if it is South Africa or not, every time I walk out there, I feel like I can get out for nothing. Every single game I can play. And it will never change.
The fear of failing… not quite the fear of failing, but the uncertainty of whether you are going to perform or not, is there every single game I have played in my life. It will always be there.
Is there a shot you can't play?
There are lots. I don't want to talk about it because then the bowlers might start bowling in different areas to me. Definitely a few shots that I am weaker with than others, but the minute I am in the mode of dominating the bowlers, then I am pretty strong everywhere.
People call you a freak. In the nicest way possible…
Any player can be a freak when he is on top of the bowling attack. When he feels like he is on top of the world. In a situation in a game, I have felt it sometimes, but a lot of other players have too. Even bowlers. Dale Steyn will be able to tell you that. Some of his five-fors, he was unstoppable. He felt like a freak.
How much of your game is mental conditioning?
I believe I am strong mentally. My breaking points might be bigger than most players. I think it's because of the way I grew up with my two older brothers. They pushed my limits quite often - once every day, I think! I think that played a big role in my breaking point being bigger than most players. Not all players. There are lots of mentally very tough players that I have played against and with. But I'd like to think that I am a fighter, and that I don't just give up when things don't go my way.
What is the purpose of batting? I mean, apart from scoring runs, do you feel there is a larger purpose to batting? To entertain?
The crowd definitely helps a little bit. It urges me on. I always felt, when I was growing up, I always felt like I was going to perform in front of a crowd. I didn't know what I was going to be, but I always had those voices in my head. Knocking balls on the wall with my tennis racquet, I could always imagine a crowd around me and cheering me on. It is amazing that it came through.
I like to entertain the crowd. Personally I like to entertain my team-mates first, but when the crowd gets going it is amazing.
What does a landmark like 100 Tests mean to you?
Not much. It's a very nice milestone that I have seen celebrated a lot in the past.
My parents are coming down. It's a very personal thing, though. Never in my wildest dreams I thought I could play 100 Test matches, but - I almost swore on tape here - I don't give a damn about 100 Test matches, 200 Test matches, 500 Test matches. I just want to win the game.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo