AB de Villiers and Dale Steyn celebrate a wicket
© Associated Press

'AB had the ability to make you feel completely helpless'

Team-mate and friend Dale Steyn on the AB de Villiers he knows and admires

Interview by Nagraj Gollapudi  |  

Dale Steyn and AB de Villiers made their first-class and Test debuts in the same matches, and played 221 international matches together. Last week de Villiers quietly slipped out of international cricket, but as Steyn says in the following interview, also conducted last week, a lot of players dream of fairy-tale endings, but de Villiers has left behind a body of work that is singular and unlikely to be emulated.

AB and you made your Test debut in the same match - against England in 2004 in Port Elizabeth. What are your first memories of him?
We also made our first-class debuts together [for Northerns] in 2003 and not long after that we played our first Test together. We ended up with quite a lot of matches together.

What not many people are aware of is that we actually played a little bit against other in our teens. AB was playing then for Northerns and I was playing for Limpopo in provincial school cricket. Then we were playing against each other in the Coca-Cola Cricket Week, which is when all the provincial schools come together and from which the junior school team for South Africa is picked. So from about the age of 11 we have played together. The thing about him was: you were drawn to him. I remember AB when he was 11. I can't remember many of the others. It wasn't because of his cricket that I remember AB. It was because of who he was: a charismatic child who grew up to become this amazing guy.

Will bowlers be relieved that he has gone?
As a matter of fact, there will be quite a bit of disappointment that he won't be playing anymore. If you ask any bowler, he would want to be challenged against guys like AB. There is a sense of relief, I guess, for international teams because they feel there is one less player [to deal with]. AB is a mountain of a player. In the recent series against Australia, they spoke about it.

I have always felt good playing against the best, so when you see one of the best players drop out of international cricket, it is a sad day, because the point of challenging yourself against the best is gone. From [another] side, it is a relief because a lot of bowlers will go: "I'm not going to have as many sleepless nights."

Play 01:33

AB de Villiers: 'I've had my turn, I'm tired'

What was it like, bowling to him in the nets?
You could nick him off ten times in the nets, it didn't count for shit.

AB had three different types of gears while playing in the nets. Sometimes he would watch it so closely that he would defend the ball completely under his eyes. I wish you could see me as I am standing now to imitate what he would do: the ball would basically rest at his feet and he would pick it up and give it back to you. That is quite annoying because as a fast bowler you want to rattle the batsman. This guy has complete control that he can defend the ball coming at 145kph and the ball would rest at his feet. That is a unique talent. That just doesn't happen. Nobody in the world that I have bowled to can do that.

Then there is the second gear that he turns to where he starts to really get into his movements, starts to walk around a lot more. He will stand on middle, and as you release the ball, he is standing two feet outside of off; he will be standing on off stump, and as you release the ball, he is standing one foot outside leg stump and lapping you.

Then he gets into the third gear, where he decides to concentrate on clearing the ropes. He will literally hit every ball in the sweet spot. He has the ability to make you feel completely helpless.

It is almost easier playing him in a match because if he does get out, he is actually out. In nets, even if he gets out he is still there for more time and he is going to smash you. It is torture.

How did he help you grow?
His excellence rubs off on other people. When you are in the company of greatness, there is only one thing to do: to raise your game. I actually sent him a message yesterday and said to him: I don't think I would be half as good as people think I am if it wasn't for him being in the team. Without him even knowing, he made more than half the players in our team excellent players.

One of my highlights of being a Proteas player is that at one stage we were the No. 1 team across all formats. That was under Gary Kirsten as coach, but I can guarantee that team wouldn't have achieved such great heights without great players like AB. That was the ability of AB - to be able to raise everyone's game with incredible intensity. That is another unique skill he has.

Did he challenge you?
He did. The best captain I played under was Graeme [Smith]. When AB came on as the captain, he showed signs of greatness, but his skills overshadowed his ability to lead the side. Although he was a very good captain, he was still a much better player [than captain], whereas Graeme was not such a good player but was an incredible captain. But AB did challenge me, sometimes in front of other players, sometimes in front of the team. He wasn't doing that to get a reaction out of me or to make me look like an arse in front of others. It was for the better development of me. That is what we ask of each other in the Proteas side and it was led by him.

South Africa endured a few setbacks during his tenure as captain, with the 2015 World Cup, where you lost in the semi-finals, being a significant one. Did it take a toll on him?
Nobody really realises that you plan four years to win a World Cup, but there is no real exit strategy. The biggest challenge for all us senior players was when we did not win the World Cup. What were we going to do now? Some of us went through a slump. Some of us took a break. But AB kept charging on, leading in a pretty challenging time. That shows what a good man he is. He had more pressure than any of us as he was leading South Africa.

Do you remember the day after the World Cup exit?
I do remember. We lost and the next day the whole group of us went out for dinner. AB's parents had flown down to watch the World Cup. I remember we all were sitting at a little Italian restaurant. All the while we had been planning on winning the World Cup. But we are out, we were gone. I walked out from the dinner and a little part of me wanted to cry. And AB was leading the side. He did not reveal his feelings much. Everybody kind of thinks winning the World Cup is the be-all and end-all and defines you as a player. But AB cannot be not defined by that. Everyone is now praising the guy and he has never won the World Cup. He has proved that by just playing amazing cricket, entertaining people and being an amazing person.

"You get guys that are good. Then you get guys that are excellent. And then you get AB de Villiers"

He set so many records. What is your favourite AB innings?
The pink game [against West Indies] where he hit the fastest ODI hundred. I remember him urging Russell Domingo [then South Africa's coach] to send David Miller in because he felt Miller could clear the ropes. Russell said, "No, you go", to AB. He was reluctant, but eventually said "fine" and rushed out of the change room. There are a couple of stairs as you step out of the change room at the Wanderers. As he ran out, he almost saw his arse on the first step. It is not on TV. When he came out to the ground he looked cool and composed, but he had almost fallen flat on his face. And from ball one he just turned it on and it was chaos after that. So West Indies need to blame Russell Domingo and David Miller for that record.

How would you sum up AB the person?
It would be unfair of me to tell you what kind of a person AB de Villiers is off the field because he keeps that private. He is a wonderful man. He is game for anything, absolutely anything.

Being an outgoing person and an adventure-seeker yourself, did you ever challenge him at anything outside the field?
AB is less of an adventurer. He might not do fishing or bungee-jumping, but he is an incredibly talented sportsperson. He is incredibly competitive. We play foot volley as part of the warm-up routine usually. During the 2015 World Cup, we were playing a game of foot volley before our game against West Indies in Sydney. AB's team had lost the game. Him and Rilee Rossouw were having a full go at each other because their team had lost. Then he had to go out and toss. He was so angry and in his grumpy Afrikaans said, "I am going to destroy these guys [West Indies]." He went out and smoked 162 not out.

If there is a game of table tennis he has lost before a team meeting, he won't even hear a word the coach says because he is grumpy about losing at table tennis.

"Genius" is a label often associated with players like AB. Is that a word you would use to describe him?
It is tough to describe him. He is a level above. He has created his own game and he is so good at it that nobody has been able to catch up with him. In his book, he confesses that he wasn't the best swimmer in the world even though people said he got swimming accolades. But he is bloody close to being an incredible swimmer, an incredible footballer. He is multi-talented. He could step into any field and feel comfortable. So yeah, you could consider him a genius.

"He has created his own game and he is so good at it that nobody has been able to catch up with him" © Getty Images

What part of his game do you wish you had?
I would like to have his courage. I have never in my life seen AB de Villiers scared. Never ever. I have played on some mean pitches with some of the fastest, scariest, meanest bowlers bowling and seen my team-mates walk in there and go, "That was frightening." But I've never seen fear in that man's eyes.

Some great players expect the same level of commitment to the task from others. Do you reckon AB would ask you to do the same?
He only asked for one thing: that you give your best and you pay attention all the time. He would say: keep your eye on the ball and me. If you make a mistake, then it is fine. But if you make a mistake while not paying attention, while not being at full intensity, while not watching your captain, then that was inexcusable.

In his farewell note, AB admitted he felt he was tired. Is that something you can relate to?
It is tough. A lot people do not realise we almost spend 200-plus days in a year out of the country travelling, playing cricket, [doing] a lot of training, a lot of photo shoots. People expect and demand your time in the level he's at. With a young family, as he has, there are expectations too. It must be excruciatingly tiring trying to go from cricket training, where you are concentrating on giving it your all, leading your team, worrying about whether the team is going to win and then getting home to find out your wife has got a headache, your kid is sick and the other one is hungry. I can't imagine it. He must be absolutely exhausted. I don't blame him. If you look at his stats, what more does the man have to prove in international cricket? He has played for 14 years.

Morne Morkel, who also quit recently, pointed out how AB retired without any fanfare.
A lot of us dream of a fairy-tale ending. AB did not want to go out driving in an open car, waving at fans at Supersport Park. He was quite happy to just say thank you very much after playing heavy cricket. That is quite admirable.

What has cricket lost?
It has lost the best. You can see guys playing international cricket and you think they are good enough, but they are not quite there yet. Then you get guys that are good. Then you get guys that are excellent. And then you get AB de Villiers.

Nagraj Gollapudi is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo