The de Villiers who first hogged limelight

Former pacer Fanie recollects how he developed the off-cutter

The de Villiers who first hogged limelight

Much before AB de Villiers took the cricketing world by storm, another Pretorian by the same surname had donned South African colours with distinction, albeit plying a different trade.

Fanie de Villiers is mainly known to Indians as the mean, lean fast bowler who troubled Sachin Tendulkar with his off-cutters. Cricket, however, is just a part of de Villiers' life. Dig deeper and you will come to know he is also a lover of poetry, a teacher, a motivational speaker, part-time coach, a successful businessman and of course a television pundit.

A man with varied interests and tastes in life, de Villiers can talk about Israeli-Palestine conflict with as much felicity as he does about outswing; he can talk about politics with as much passion as he does about cricket.  

A late bloomer, who says he bowled his first ball in anger only in his late 20s, de Villiers made enough impact in his career that began at 28 with India's tour of South Africa in 1992. He played only 18 Tests and 83 ODIs but did well to claim 85 and 95 wickets respectively. He always had to bowl under the giant shadow of Allan Donald but still managed to carve a niche for himself.

By the time he began his international career, he was more towards the end of it than at its start and naturally his pace had reduced a bit. So, he had to develop variations to maximise his talent. His fast off-cutters, that he perfected in England, brought him plenty of success.

"In 1990 I played County cricket for Kent," he says, recalling how he developed the off-cutter. "They reduced the seam (of the ball), made it a thinner thread. And it was the driest summer ever since 1976. And we couldn't swing the ball. So, I had to bowl off-cutters. From ball one, cross-seam, off-cutters, stayed low. The previous year it was a wet summer, and every bowler took wickets, so they said let's reduce the seam. Let's make it smaller and thinner. So I just bowled off-cutters and repetition and muscle memory trained me to do that. That's why I got all those wickets in Australia in Sydney (in 1993 which South Africa won)," he explains.

Veering off cricket, he talks about his love for poetry that he has cultivated to help him embellish his speeches.  

"When you're a guest speaker, you try and identify special sayings," he tells you. "I like reading and knowing what the hell is going on. The book I'm reading now is on Israel, on the most highly decorated officer ever in the history of Israel. Because I'm a teacher, it's probably natural to be inquisitive. And also to be teaching. At school we had all the Shakespearean plays, so there's probably some interest in that too."

Tell him about not too many cricketers interested in literature these days and he has the answer ready.

"Probably because I teach," he reasons. "All of us develop our own characters through our climate, landscape, your atmosphere, your locality, what you study, your parents, your recent history, past history… That's all part of character building and who you are. That gives you probably a more well-rounded individual than a young guy who plays cricket straight after school, then gets into the academy, into the midst of the same level of IQ, and they just stay there. They don't develop.

"The young guys in the system, in those days, if I said to them, 'Let's go and see Mother Teresa' they would have been, 'Who's Mother Teresa? Who's Gandhi?' At 29 you know all those things. That probably differs you a little bit from the rest of the pack. And remember, seven-eight of us when we started playing were all between 29 and 33 years old. Ambassadorship and perception, everything was different compared to your 21-22-23 years old."

So were you taught about Nelson Mandela's struggles and all in school?

"No, of course not. Why would they do it," he says, giving a sense of educational system in the pre-apartheid era. "We had no idea. I went to play cricket at the age of 21 in England, and one guy asked me who was Mandela, and I didn't know who he was! At 21 years old. Student, studying for degree – and I had no idea!"

So what was his reaction?

"He was obviously puzzled. I said to him, 'we're not fighting, we're not shooting each other.' There were lots of black people living in town, although by the laws they weren't allowed in certain areas. They had their own houses, their own businesses and own things. There wasn't any animosity. So when that question came, I was like 'what is he talking about'? But again, we're back to politics, which is silly," he signs off.

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