To the generation of Indian cricket fans who watched the game in the 1990s, matches against South Africa were ones to dread, especially in One-Day Internationals. That’s because Sachin Tendulkar – nearly invincible otherwise – seemed to always fail against the South Africans. Against one bowler in particular. Long before AB de Villiers became a name to be reckoned with, there was another with the same surname, Fanie de Villiers, who struck fear with his ability to bowl the slower off-cutter, the pioneering delivery that became a template for bowlers the world over. While he got Tendulkar with the off-cutter, de Villiers had the outswinger in his repertoire too, and used it rather well. He took 85 wickets in 18 Tests at 24.27, having missed out on a large chunk of his international career due to apartheid. He also had 95 wickets in 83 ODIs at 27.74 and an excellent economy rate of 3.57. A television commentator now, de Villiers took time out between stints during the ongoing Test series between India and South Africa to speak to Wisden India about an eventful career that has included biting an umpire’s ear. Excerpts:
On developing the lethal slower off-cutter
Who was the earliest guy to continuously keep bowling slow balls? I always got Tendulkar out. Myself and (Manoj) Prabhakar used to speak in India. ‘What are we going to do? Cricketers are lining us up in one-dayers. We need to do something.’ Prabhakar told me ‘I’m bowling quick-arm spinners to warm-up’.
I told him I’ve also tried to bowl a little bit of an off-cutter to get lbws to take the swing away. You couldn’t get an lbw if the ball swings. And I said to him, ‘Can you bowl that with a full run-up?’ He said, ‘I don’t know, we can try.’
So he went to practice and I went to practice. I tried it in the nets. I ran in and bowled a quick spinner. And it worked. My batsmen were saying, ‘What are you doing? Flippin’ bowl properly. What the hell are you doing?’ I said to Prabhakar, ‘I won’t tell my players if you don’t tell yours. Let’s try it in the next game.’ Next game, Tendulkar hit it straight up (and was caught). That’s where we began those off-cutters. Prabhakar did it too.
On playing cricket in South Africa while the side was banned from the international game
Those days there was no international cricket, no international rugby. There was nothing. Our local cricket was the ultimate. Imagine Virat Kohli playing every single time for Delhi. How good will the players around him become? Because Kohli is not just a successful man. He is excellence. They see a benchmark. The way he thinks, the way he trains, the way he walks, the way he markets is all at the highest level. If everyone can latch on that, the system will lift. So South African cricket was very strong when we all played domestic cricket. Now, you don’t have the big stars playing regularly anymore.
I think our provincial cricket is weak. We’ve got hundreds of people leaving the country, playing cricket overseas. My boy [Fanie de Villiers Jr.] never even played here. He’s playing in New Zealand. He played in West Indies for six months, then England. Now he qualifies to play as a local player. He is 23. Bowls quick, and it’s a global market. The rand (South Africa’s currency) is not global. It’s too low. If you study a degree and you can earn in pounds, you go and earn pounds. I saw the vision in my boy to play cricket overseas. Hopefully make it there and bring the money back and make a difference here.
I coached him for two years. He knows everything. He just needs to build a little more muscle and hopefully get an opportunity.
On the transformation quota in South Africa
If I was in their shoes, I would have probably done the same, to enhance growth. If it’s fair, that’s debatable. If it’s fair to them (non-whites)? Yes of course it is. It is probably what I would have done too. There’s no easy answer. There’s no right answer either. Best thing to do is not to be a politician.
On moving to England as a 21 year old
My dad said, ‘Why don’t you go and find out a little bit more about the world. Let’s get you a club contract, you’re good enough to play.’ Go and find out what life is about.’ It was in the Lancashire League.
The language barrier in England
I was useless. I had to fend for myself with a few English words, that was it. Grew up on a farm, I had no idea of English. They all thought I was stupid, IQ-level-wise, because I couldn’t communicate well. But it was a wonderful experience. It’s like taking a boy out of the countryside in India who knows ten words, and sending him to England. I bridged the gap because of cricket. If you’re good enough in sports, it helps. It breaks down barriers quickly. People say, ‘I want you in my team’. That’s when you become popular.
On learning how to bowl the fast off-cutter in England
In 1990, I played county cricket for Kent. They reduced the seam, 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. 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. The left-handers became my target, I’d be like, ‘Oh left-hander, give me the ball.’
On biting David Shepherd’s ear
[During South Africa’s tour of England in 1994, the second Test was at Headingley, Leeds. Just a week earlier, South Africa’s rugby team had played against New Zealand, and Johan Le Roux bit the ear of Sean Fitzpatrick.]
A Rugby match was going on and Le Roux bit Fitzpatrick’s ear. He was bleeding. And he said ‘Barbaric South African’. And it was the day before [the week before]. I bowled and appealed for an lbw and David Shepherd said to me, ‘Not out’. When I walked back I told him, ‘You know people’s ears get bitten off for much lesser than what you’ve done against me now’.
As I walked away it thought, ‘I’m going to bite him!’ About three or four balls later, I thought, ‘If I’m going to bite him, I need to go past him and then turn around and bite him. I am going to get fined, maybe 10 grand, so I must make it worthwhile. I’m going to bite him, hold on to his ear and tell my mates see what I’ve done, and then we’re going to have a laugh, because then it’s worthwhile to get fined.’ I turned around and remember grabbing him and I bit him. I remember the salt in my mouth … Old people’s ears keep growing! I bit him and I held on and he said, ‘Eh’. And I thought, ‘He’s not screaming’ so I went harder and he went, ‘Aaargh!!’ And everybody had a laugh about it.
The next day at breakfast, he threw the paper on the table in front of me, The Sun, with a photograph of me biting him. You can see his ear stretched out far! And he said, ‘You’re a good sport, de Villiers’. And he signed it and gave it to me, then went to have his own breakfast with his wife.
And I got fined 10 grand. They said I brought the game in disrepute. But it was still worthwhile!
On shining the ball using sweat from his armpit
There was no rule against it. What happens in reverse swing is you shine the shiny side with spit and sweat and whatever the case may be. If you wet it too much, it stops swinging. Because it becomes heavier and works against the swing. And when it stops swinging, that’s when you wet that side even more to start reverse swing.
They tried to stop me, I said, ‘There’s no rule. Put it in the rulebook’. There was no rule saying I can’t do it. I said, ‘You can’t fine me, there’s no rule’.
What’s less hygienic? Spitting or this? This is better than bloody spit! You can’t talk about hygiene when everyone’s spitting on their fingers and putting them on the ball.