Interviews

AB de Villiers on ‘unbearable’ pressure and his new life

The bat has been sitting in his shed for three months, unused and untouched by the genius hands that once wielded it. He only went to fetch it because he thought he might need it for the photoshoot. Otherwise, batting could scarcely be further from his mind.

The golden years when he bestrode cricket’s many worlds are beginning to recede into memory. At home, where he feels most comfortable, he’s not AB de Villiers, one of the greatest batsmen to walk the earth. He’s just ‘AB’. Or ‘Daddy’.

He’s 34 years old now, and since his abrupt retirement from international cricket in May, has been spending his time reacquainting himself with the simple pleasures. A trip to Europe with his wife Danielle. Tending the garden. Spending time with the kids.

He’s promoting the new UAE T20x competition taking place in the United Arab Emirates later this year, but not remotely tempted to play in it himself. When you have spent 14 years captaining South Africa, criss-crossing the world, carrying the hopes of a nation, then an extended period of quality time at home feels like its own epic triumph.

De Villiers is the global ambassador for UAE T20x.

“I prefer to be out of the spotlight, to be honest,” he says. “I’ve always been that kind of personality. When I became captain of the Proteas, things changed a bit. But I’ve always enjoyed having some personal time away from the game. Those are the kinds of things I really enjoy.”

Does he still get recognised on the school run? “Unfortunately, yes.”

But then, he wants to clarify. Of course he’s grateful for what the game has given him, for the opportunities bestowed by fame. He lives for the hum of a packed Bull Ring in Johannesburg, the razzmatazz of Bangalore on a big Indian Premier League night. It’s just that, as he puts it, “I’ve always been shy. I don’t really like attention too much. It’s… quite ironic. But I get embarrassed quite a bit.”

Sachin Tendulkar was similar: another cricketing titan whose immense sporting personality masked a slightly introverted, introspective character. A man who thrives in front of 50,000 people, but clams up in a room of 20. It is one of the reasons, you suspect, why calling time on his international career – de Villiers will still play a little Twenty20 cricket for his local Titans side and Royal Challengers Bangalore in the IPL – was a grave and momentous decision that at the same time felt ludicrously easy to make.

Was there a certain relief at finally ending things, after years of flirting with retirement, of extended breaks and comebacks? “Massively. Yes. I know the right answer is probably to say I will always miss the game.

But I truly believe that players who tell you they don’t feel the pressure of international cricket, being away from home for months at a time, are lying to everyone and themselves.

“It’s been unbearable at times: the pressure you have to face, performing day in and day out. The expectations that you put on yourself, from fans, from the country, from coaches. It is huge, and it’s something that’s on your mind all the time as a cricketer. And it’s definitely something that I’m not going to miss. I’m very happy to have stepped away. Absolutely no regrets.”

Only in recent years has de Villiers begun to open up about the true personal cost of his cricketing life. Since making his debut against England in 2004, he has on occasion been the team’s wicket-keeper, its best fielder, its best defensive batsman, its best attacking batsman, its most visible ambassador, its principal innovator, and its captain.

Celebrating a century … a familiar sight. Photo: Getty

Throw in the unprecedented turbulence of franchise T20 and its competing pressures, the unique politics of South African cricket, the expectations of a nation still waiting for its first global trophy, a sporting culture that has always lionised toughness and machismo, and you can see why – as easy as he made it look at times – international cricket was anything but.

“I was prepared to embrace it, to fight the pressure,” he says. “And I’m happy that I did. But it certainly takes his toll after a while. I feel there is room for players to be more honest about it, having systems in place to make sure they keep fresh and mentally healthy. I was certainly not mentally ill at the time, but I can relate to the fact that pressure can really drive you down, and make you so tired.”

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