Fanie de Villiers

'I was the best in the world with the offcutter'

The former South Africa fast bowler talks about what you ought to bowl to Tendulkar, digging poetry, nearly losing his eyes, and then some

Interview by Sidharth Monga
Going native in Pakistan in 1996:

Going native in Pakistan in 1996: "You need to have a wild experience to really enjoy a place" © Getty Images

I wasn't the best athlete. I had to generate pace through muscle and lots of gym work and strong legs. Over 100 metres, I think Ben Johnson would have beaten me by 20 metres.

We used to steal Jonty Rhodes' shirts and swap them for beer: 20 cases of beer or a case of brandy, a case of whiskey and six cases of beer. Every Friday he would go, "Chaps, I have lost another shirt, man. Please help me."

I was a hardworking cricketer. I didn't get it as easy as others. That made me appreciate it more than them.

We lived on a farm in the Free State . My dad was a farmer. My uncle - a big, fit uncle - used to hit tennis balls into the air for us, and we used to take catches. That is my oldest memory of cricket.

I had an action that allowed me to bowl outswing, and the stronger I got, the more the ball swung away.

We didn't really know of apartheid. We were probably very ignorant more than anything else. In our days the clubs had some coloured people - not black guys, because they were playing soccer - but it wasn't guys that ended up playing for the province or the country.

I became a lieutenant in the army at about 23-24. Wonderful. Absolutely brilliant when it comes to discipline. When it comes to knuckling down and focusing. Three o'clock you start waking up, 5 o'clock you are at breakfast, 7 o'clock, when the sun is out, it's half a day gone already. I wish some of our youth can go through some of this to become solid citizens.

I never had cricket heroes. I had rugby heroes. A sportsman like Daley Thompson was my hero. Clive Rice and Graeme Pollock and Garth Le Roux were the three guys I knew of.

The quarter-final in the 1996 World Cup, we got to the ground, had a look at the wicket and said, "Hansie [Cronje], you have got to win the toss. If you lose the toss, the team bowling second, spinners will take all the wickets." We lost the toss, we batted second. We lost eight wickets against their spinners.

There wasn't really that much discrimination at the ground level, but at the top level, where [non-whites] couldn't play for the country.

County cricket taught me how to bowl the offcutter, which is what you should bowl to Tendulkar all the time. I am not talking slower balls - the fast offcutters.

What do the players do nowadays? They don't even look at the public. Morne Morkel and Dale Steyn [the exceptions] are from my clan. South Africans are normally friendly people, but then you have got some of the private-school boys. Our captain is one of them.

I didn't know who Mandela was. The media wasn't allowed to write about apartheid. It was controlled by the government. There was no awareness. When I started studying, at about the age of 19-20, I started finding out about Mandela. So how many fingers can you point? Basically, media controls knowledge.

Everybody gets his own bowling action by accident. That's a fact. To change actions is hard. You can change angles and all.

I was one of the first Afrikaner guys breaking through the system. Corrie van Zyl is one. Allan Donald is one. Many years back some Afrikaners played, but they went to privileged schools. I was a countryside boy. Tough barrier to break down, very tough.

"Everybody gets his own bowling action by accident. That's a fact"

Sydney [1994] was a wonderful start to my career. Beating the No. 1 side on their home soil. Beating them on a spinner's wicket. I took 10 wickets, Shane Warne took 12. Because of offcutters, because of lbws, because of pace variations. It opened the door up for respect, for making a career out of [cricket]. To lose a match and then at the end to win it is what life is all about. We lost 11 of the 13 sessions in that match. Amazing, absolutely amazing.

I couldn't speak English. I learned English at school, but I could only understand and read and write. When I spoke English, I sounded stupid. Language is a terrible barrier. More than one can think.

I have got the jacket for the 1972 tour. The team was selected, but the tour didn't go ahead because of the pressure. For 20 years nobody played. We didn't know what to expect.

I nearly lost my eyes in the army. I was posted in the sports fields. These guys dropped off some lime that they use in building roads, and that lime when it touches water becomes a hard, solid thing, and it becomes heated up. The guys that were working there threw it in a big drum, and it started boiling and cooking and swelled up and blew. I was probably four metres from it. It hit me in the eyes. I was blind for six-seven days. They literally tied me to a bed, held me upside down and threw water into my eyes. For three hours, four hours. It was so sore I couldn't close my eyes, I couldn't open my eyes. It's amazing how you can go through that. Today if I close my eyes I can see a lot of spots because of it. I could have been completely blind. There are eight layers in the eye, and they said six of them were burnt off.

You need to have a wild experience to really enjoy a place, and I think you find that in India.

Allan Donald, he had a lot of pace, and because I was a little bit slower, they tried to play more shots off me, and with the away swing, in the first innings I always got wickets. In the second innings they would start blocking. In 1995 I was the best bowler in the world - No. 1 ranked. Then Allan Donald started taking more wickets, because they started attacking him and started seeing me out. It's amazing how it works if you have got a system where you have got two guys quick enough to take wickets.

I reckon I was the best in the world with that offcutter. Without slowing it down. It went whirrrr. And it worked like a bomb. I took a lot of wickets in England with offcutters. Grassy wicket, bowl offcutters. We had a game here where the West Indian A side had nine left-handers. I took eight of the nine. I could have used that more if we had played a lot of Test cricket in India.

I was absolutely furious with Hansie. I would have punched him. We got paid in our day by winning games. You got extra money by winning games. When we found out that he was involved in singly effecting stuff, I was furious.

The Aussie crowds hate you when you get there. But the moment you start playing well, they come and support you, which I have never seen anywhere else in the world. You need to earn your respect there. The moment I won that Sydney game, I was the best thing since sliced white bread in that country. They can turn around like that, because they are sport-knowledgeable people. That makes a big difference when you are touring there.

I couldn't hear a flippin' note of English when I played in Yorkshire. They sounded pissed every time.

Tony Greig said before the final day [Sydney Test, 1994] that South Africa have got a million-to-one chance of winning. At the post-match interview I told him, "One thing you must remember: South Africans never give up."

I used to vary my pace: 138-139kph was my average pace, but then I bowled the same delivery at 128ks an hour. That is one thing bowlers must learn. I don't see anybody varying his pace by 10ks. They all go 119 or 135. You can vary your pace by 5ks, 8ks an hour. That's when you get the midwicket catches, because the timing is a little bit different.

I would rub the ball in my armpit to make it as heavy as possible. It was not against the rules. The umpires moaned about it, but I said, "Page 40, rule 1". Anyway, spit is worse than armpit.

We were good ambassadors. The chances we took on the field to get the public on our side were calculated. How many times did we have tea time in a Test, and four or three of us stayed on the field and called the boys over the fence and said to the security guys, "F*** you, guys, relax man", and got them on and gave catches to them. And then we would give them our caps. The public loved us for that.

India and Pakistan are the most difficult places to bowl in. If I am a swing bowler, I can come back in the 20th over and still swing the ball. You have got no chance out there.

I studied to become a teacher. I always wanted to be a top rugby player or athlete. Then four players got injured in the provincial cricket team. I came from a third league to play a provincial game. I took six wickets against Western Province, and suddenly I was in the big world of cricket. I didn't even dream of cricket. Just like that, I got there. There was no money then, but that ego was enough for me - the recognition I got at university was enough for me to say, "I want more."

Sydney 1994:

Sydney 1994: "Lose a match and then at the end to win it is what life is all about" © Getty Images

I played in one rebel tour. I played against the Mike Gatting rebels. We played to full houses. Our provincial games, full house. Rebel games, full house. They love sport in this country.

Hansie was the best captain I played under. But you must remember that he had the luxury of eight guys that were captains, and collectively they had 60-70-80 years of experience. A captain is as good as his senior players, knowledge-wise, ability-wise.

I could have become an international javelin thrower. I just hurt my back while throwing. I had a fusion - got big cuts on my back to fuse three vertebrae. Because of that I had stiff hamstrings most of my life. I made it through Test matches and rested enough to be playing the next one. I was one of the lucky ones to do a lot of gym work, a lot of training. That kept me strong.

South Africa aren't chokers. We play more finals than others. You have got to take a look at how many teams have excelled like us.

Our Transvaal teams could have played international cricket. The likes of Graeme Pollock, Garth McKenzie, Corrie van Zyl, Vince van der Bijl, Ali Bacher. They beat the other provinces in two, two and a half days. Bowl you out for 120-150, score 300, bowl you out for 150 again. Game over. Two days. Our sport was strong. There was enough money to coach, to take the game to the next level.

I am a scholar. I have got a library. I am probably a bit more educated in the niceties of the world.

Edgbaston 1999. Is the team a choker or did Klusener make a mistake? It is easy to brand a team. We were cruising. Five balls, one run, the best batsman in the world. Donald knew there was no run, but Klusener was already through. Choking is everybody freezing up and getting bowled out for 40.

I have always been a fan of transformation in players, but never have I liked transformation of coaches. The moment you get guys who are not good enough, and they haven't got the respect of the players, then they might as well be a manager. When it comes to coaching, you pick the best.

When do you start reading poetry? Forty onwards. You don't respect it before 40. Don't have time before that. I am a good six years into the stuff that matters. You don't read silly magazines. It's the next phase of life.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo





  • POSTED BY praveen on | October 28, 2011, 16:25 GMT

    Fanie was one of those players I had a grudging respect for in his playing days. It sucked that he would take out India's best batsman Sachin time and again but as a cricket fan I admired Fanie's skilful bowling. When I read that he came back from a near blinding accident to accomplish so much as a sportsman, my respect for him went up further. Early to mid 90's SA team had that burning desire to succeed. Fanie, Allan Donald, Peter Kirsten, Kepler Wessels, Pat Symcox, Brian McMillan, Jonty, etc were a great bunch.

  • POSTED BY Mithilesh on | October 27, 2011, 6:56 GMT

    @koushik1: Get your facts right. Tony Greig is a South African born and not an Aussie!!!

  • POSTED BY Agnihothra on | October 27, 2011, 6:42 GMT

    Fanie knows that Greig was a Saffa turned Englishman settled in Australia. So he was rubbing it in...

  • POSTED BY Dummy4 on | October 27, 2011, 4:03 GMT

    i used to bowl with his action when i was little....and i remember taking wickets cos of those off cutters and the natural outswing....

  • POSTED BY Dummy4 on | October 27, 2011, 3:21 GMT

    Was it Fanie that played with a remote control toy truck on the pitch in Melbourne . I remember the event but not so sure on the finer details . It was something unexpected at the time !

  • POSTED BY Rob on | October 27, 2011, 0:59 GMT

    A true bowler - fabulous hard working, quality seamer. Just how many wickets would he have taken had De Villiers been able to have a full career an international level.

  • POSTED BY Chris on | October 27, 2011, 0:01 GMT

    Great interview. The professionalism of the game probably allowed players to be more personable back then, coming down under Fanie was well respected for his competitiveness and never say die attitude. As good as the current crop of SAf are, and i rate them very highly, the teams of Fanie's era seemed to have a bit more hardness and flair to them. Is his having a dig at the current SAf skip? ;)

  • POSTED BY wayne on | October 26, 2011, 23:12 GMT

    The rivalry between Australia & South Africa was born during that SCG test, which was a real corker. He has it right - Australian crowds will only respect cricketers (even their own, to some extent - look at the popularity of Watson & Clarke over the years) once they've earned it, and Fanie & co. sure did during that match. I always look forward to seeing Aus v SA cricket, because you know both teams are in it 100%. I always liked Fanie, because he talks the way he played - honest, nothing fancy, and true.

  • POSTED BY Dummy4 on | October 26, 2011, 21:13 GMT

    Agree with most observers - his conviction and honesty shines through. His unbiased, platitude-free views are observant, yet not sugar-coated in favor of anyone. Like his viewpoint on offcutters too. He is correct - when you bowl a cutter, you still need to keep up the pace; similarly, when you bowl a slower .. it needs to be subtle, so that the batsman can mistime - not so slow that they can re-adjust .. that's a proper disguise. The only way to conquer pitches like those of India and Pakistan is the way Wasim and Waqar did - take the pitch out of equation - bowl fast and full, and add late swing!

  • POSTED BY Prashanth on | October 26, 2011, 20:21 GMT

    Refreshing!! Thoroughly enjoyed reading this article. I remember how Donald used to attack, and Fanie used to choke the opposition batsmen to death. What a lethal combination. Brings all those memories back to me. I, being an Indian, used to dread every time he to bowled to Sachin. Somehow get had this uncanny ability to get him out caught in the short mid-wicket area with his off-cutters, when rest of the world couldn't even stop him from hitting boundaries. Miss you Fanie!!

  • POSTED BY A.G. on | October 26, 2011, 19:57 GMT

    the comment he made to grieg is simply superb.. right way to answer aussies :)...


  • POSTED BY Eoin on | October 26, 2011, 18:52 GMT

    great article for the soul purpose that it contains honesty, something which is lacking in the cricket fantasy land that we find ourselves living in/out nowadays. but i do disagree with the '... can only appreciate poetry at 40' thing. I've loved poetry ever since i was a kid. wait a minute, i still am lol

  • POSTED BY Dummy4 on | October 26, 2011, 18:36 GMT

    Fanie was fantastic. Then Donald and Pollock, and now Morkel and Steyn. You have got to love the man's honesty. He is a man that personifies professional cricket.

  • POSTED BY A on | October 26, 2011, 18:19 GMT

    Fanie! I remember him as the most foxy and economical bowler of his time. He would just suffocate even the best batsmen with his variations. Check the stats, his ODI economy rate (3.57) is better than even McGrath's (3.88)!

  • POSTED BY Dummy4 on | October 26, 2011, 18:16 GMT

    Petrus Stephanus De Villiers - is simply one of the greatest fast bowlers to play for the Springboks. Along with Dave Callaghan - one of the two guys who debuted in 1992 against India. Made life miserable for Azhar and Jadeja who gave catching practice to Big Mac Brian Mc Millan in the slips. Agree with him that army training is one of the best things for nation building. In 1992, there were as many as 8 guys who could have opened the bowling for South Africa. All of them were products of the hard rigour and steely focus of apartheid South Africa who treated each game as war.

  • POSTED BY Brian on | October 26, 2011, 18:09 GMT

    Fanie was always a likeable guy, but 2 issues with the comments here. 1. As a person of color in SA, I know for a fact that "There wasn't really that much discrimination at the ground level, but at the top level, where [non-whites] couldn't play for the country" is just NOT TRUE! In fact there was very much discrimnation at the ground level, which I myself experienced even at simple university games. 2. About having no chance in Pakistan, yes very difficult pitches, but Wasim and Waqar were very successful in taking wickets there and everywhere else in the world too.

  • POSTED BY Senthil on | October 26, 2011, 17:19 GMT

    It is funny how Fanie is not that old but his attitude is from a wonderful era where cricketers played with enjoyment, not just of the game but of life. I remember Fanie as being the most difficult bowler to hit. Would have been great to see him face off against today's T20 titans!

  • POSTED BY suresh on | October 26, 2011, 17:09 GMT

    Great guy ! Enjoyed every bit of his comments

  • POSTED BY Dummy4 on | October 26, 2011, 16:31 GMT

    Fanie, unathletic and all arms,he may well ave been whilst at the bowling crease,but my word was some trier..ran in all day long!( perpetually "into the wind" it seemed going by his hard bounding stride) He endeared himself to the indian public by going on Rickshaw rides in his bid to explore/know the place and people i spose!Lovely enjoyable read and his views are refreshing!

  • POSTED BY El on | October 26, 2011, 16:27 GMT

    I know just what he means when he says bowl off cutters to tendulkar. Sachin couldn't read him 8 times out of 10 with those slow-fast off cutters. I think along with dion nash from new zealand, fanie bothered SRT more than anyone else I can remember. Sachin really was clueless against these two who were decent bowlers but by no means in the class of Wasim Akram or McGrath.

  • POSTED BY justin on | October 26, 2011, 13:59 GMT

    Great article but please note Mr. Fanie de Villiers the West Indies were the no. 1 side in the world in 1994 not Australia.....It wasn't until 1995 when Australia beat them 2-1 did they assume no.1 status. after 15 years of West indian domination over test cricket.

  • POSTED BY Hulk on | October 26, 2011, 13:46 GMT

    Fanie was one of the best cricketers South Africa ever played for.

  • POSTED BY Dummy4 on | October 26, 2011, 13:13 GMT

    i remeber his last test it was against pakistan..he had taken 4 wikets already and one wicket remaining all team of SA around batsman to help fanie taking 5th one...

  • POSTED BY Antony on | October 26, 2011, 12:30 GMT

    Yeah, good article, except for the 'we didn't really know of apartheid' bit. Where was he living? The moon?

  • POSTED BY Unmesh on | October 26, 2011, 12:21 GMT

    Being an Indian fan, I remember de Villiers was one of the bowlers Tendulkar used to struggle against in 90s (Now, don't go into statistics and all..becos statistics don't always tell the real story). His off cutters were always tough to handle. I remember in one of the ODIs, de Villiers moved a fielder to short midwicket position..and the next ball..de Villiers bowled an off-cutter...and Tendulkar was out flicking the ball to the same fielder!

  • POSTED BY Rakesh on | October 26, 2011, 11:52 GMT

    brilliant, I am unlucky to not watch him more because I only started watching in 1996 but whatever I saw of him he looked fantastic

  • POSTED BY Dummy4 on | October 26, 2011, 11:36 GMT

    a gud read indeed !! __ dunno much aba him__but sounds like a nice guy... :) statistics say he was a great bowler too...

  • POSTED BY Dummy4 on | October 26, 2011, 10:54 GMT

    Lovely to read - "Fast Fanie" was always a bit of an enigma to me. Nice to know more about the man.

  • POSTED BY P Subramani on | October 26, 2011, 10:44 GMT

    Fanie is indeed a great charecter apart from being a wonderful bowler. He has a sense of humour as well. It would be a great moment if he became the bowling coach for India.

  • POSTED BY Dummy4 on | October 26, 2011, 10:39 GMT

    A great thinking bowler. I remember his maiden over to Border at the end of an ODI being described as the finest over ever bowled!

  • POSTED BY Dummy4 on | October 26, 2011, 9:52 GMT

    Fanie de illiers like the de Silvas of Sri lanka hardworking cricketer. He was responsible for ruining the career of the Western Australian batsman who was out the Test team for few years

  • POSTED BY Dummy4 on | October 26, 2011, 9:45 GMT

    Great match.. http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=ov8FeODxyXU

  • POSTED BY Paul on | October 26, 2011, 9:39 GMT

    Cricinfo - Best article I've read this year. Fanie is a such a good guy. Down to earth. I like his thoughts and would like to see some of them instilled in today's cricketers.

    He seemed to be around for such a short time. Pity.

    The story of them taking Jonty's shirts as bartering items is fantastic. I'm sure his shirts could fetch you a whole lot more these days Fanie :).

    Thanks for this.

  • POSTED BY Dummy4 on | October 26, 2011, 9:26 GMT

    Love Fanie's action. The bounding stride, the cocked wrist and the fizz of the ball. It would have been scary as a batsman facing him.

  • POSTED BY Andrew on | October 26, 2011, 9:20 GMT

    Obviously respect to Fanie for his playing days. I take issue however, with his rather easy cop-out that it was all the media's fault that he did not know about apartheid. Also, his prejudice appears to be coming through when he suggests that Graeme Smith is not a 'friendly' South African. I have seen both Steyn and Smith in public places, and I was too scared to greet the scowling Steyn, while Smith was perfectly civil to me when I sat near him on a flight.

  • POSTED BY Sharad on | October 26, 2011, 9:18 GMT

    I used to hate him when I was growing up. Later I began to realize that it was out of respect because he was pretty darn good. Respect.

  • POSTED BY Dummy4 on | October 26, 2011, 9:11 GMT

    Terrific read! When I was 14 Fanie came to our school and gave a talk. As a major cricket fan I was excited beyond belief by that.

    A true character in the game, and another South Afican that makes you wonder - ''How would he have impacted the game if he had more international games?''

    Along with Pat Symcox he always puts a smile on the viewers' faces.

  • POSTED BY Arosha on | October 26, 2011, 8:10 GMT

    Fanie de Villiers was an highly impressive pacer, no doubt. It's really unfortunate to see the likes of him, Brett Schultz, Mfuneko Ngam, etc. didn't have the chance to build substantially long enough careers so that they could prove the world what worldclass talents they all had been. De Villiers had been quite a potent partner for Donald before Shaun Pollock emerged. The careers of De Villiers, Brett Schultz & Mfuneko Ngam were cut short by injuries, fitness issues, etc. , otherwise these could have easily become world class bowlers for SA. De Villiers bowled cutters at quite a deceptive yet decent pace, where as Schultz had great pace & swing through the air. Ngam could easily top 150+ kmph on quite regular basis. Telemachus couldn't survive that long either. But I still believe Allan Donald, De Villiers & Schultz had been the best 3 pace talents SA had after their re-entry to the international game in '92, thought only Donald got the chance to prove what he's really capable of.

  • POSTED BY Steve on | October 26, 2011, 8:06 GMT

    How can an article on de Villiers omit Devon Malcolm and 'you guys are hsitory'? The most ill-advised bouncer in the history of Test cricket?

  • POSTED BY Dummy4 on | October 26, 2011, 7:55 GMT

    One of the best bowlers and the most economical bowler I saw as a kid. He simply refused to give away any runs, even in India.

  • POSTED BY Dummy4 on | October 26, 2011, 7:23 GMT

    Fanie is a real character and not one to mince words. Loved this article thanks!

  • POSTED BY Jayanth on | October 26, 2011, 7:19 GMT

    Did Graham (Garth) McKenzie play domestic cricket in SA? Statsguru says that he played only for West Australia and Leicestershire. Are you referring to Kevin McKenzie, who played cricket for Transvaal and is incidentally, Neil's McKenzie's father?

  • POSTED BY Dummy4 on | October 26, 2011, 7:10 GMT

    He was one of my fav bowlers back then. Didn't like him taking Indian wickets though

  • POSTED BY Dummy4 on | October 26, 2011, 7:04 GMT

    Sanath Jayasuriya was Fanie de Villiers's Last ODI wicket. I remember how batsmen struggled to score runs of Fanie de Villiers.

  • POSTED BY Amol on | October 26, 2011, 6:37 GMT

    I was just a child when he played but I loved his fearsome action and ofcourse the bowling itself. I still love Fanie.

  • POSTED BY Dummy4 on | October 26, 2011, 6:13 GMT

    I'll never forget watching Fanie get an Aussie right-hander out in an awesome over of controlled swing bowling - 5 outswingers left alone outside off, the last his famous fast offcutter that the batsman saw too late, jammed the pad in front, cheers mate back you go. Also once in an ODI at the wanderers he bowled 6 yorkers to Allan Border in the 2nd last over of the game when they needed a handful of runs - won the game for SA. Besides the Syndey test in 94 those are my best memories of him.

  • POSTED BY muhamad on | October 26, 2011, 5:38 GMT

    A great bowler to watch in nineties

  • POSTED BY Garreth on | October 26, 2011, 5:38 GMT

    Fanie you legend. Fantastic article. A true example of the South Afrcan spirit that seems to have been lost on some of our guys

  • POSTED BY Tahir on | October 26, 2011, 5:17 GMT

    Excellent article, provide lots of stuff to know more about south African cricket and cricketers, many valuable advice given out of sheer experience.

  • POSTED BY Vinod on | October 26, 2011, 5:15 GMT

    a fantastic and innovative bowler. great to watch....look at the die hard attitude!

  • POSTED BY rienzie on | October 26, 2011, 5:05 GMT

    He , McMillan, and Donald, and to a leeser extent, Snell, were a great Pace group. they bowled with great heart. And when Pollock came onto the scene, I reckon, they were a close number 2, nect to Australia's side. I wont forget how he tore through the Aussie side in the 1993-94 at the MCG(?) and they won a very low scoring 2nd innings. As I suspect, unlike Nell, this guy had a heart of a lion, whereas nell had the roar of a lion!