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