Batting for God
Meet cricketing legend AB de Villiers. Matt Thomas reports
Abraham Benjamin de Villiers is a legend of the cricketing world. Known as AB de Villiers or AB, he has been described by fellow international cricketers as the most complete, most valuable and most loved cricketer on the planet.
Since making his South Africa debut in 2004, de Villiers has had an incredible record-breaking career and has said that his success has been built on his Christian faith.
De Villiers grew up near Pretoria and was a gifted athlete from an early age, excelling in a number of different sports. He was in the same school year as fellow South Africa international, Francois du Plessis and the two remained close friends as they progressed from playing junior cricket all the way up to playing in the national team together.
AB made his international debut against England at the age of 20 and quickly became well-known for his entertaining batting and athletic fielding.
His career went from strength to strength as he set a number of records including the fastest 50, 100, and 150 of all time in One Day Internationals (ODI) by any batsmen. He was also named as the International Cricket Council’s ODI Player of the Year three times during his 15-year international career and was one of the five Wisden cricketers of the decade for 2010-2019.
Former England captain Michael Vaughan has described him as ‘the definition of cricketing genius’.
Building on his success with the national team, his popularity has soared since playing the Indian Premier League (IPL), the most-watched cricket league in the world. Former South African international Jonty Rhodes wrote that ‘Only a handful of international cricketers have seen their personal popularity extend beyond the boundaries of their homeland. AB de Villiers can be included in this very select group of globally acclaimed superstars.’ Rhodes goes on to mention how, while coaching in India, he saw that even opposition fans would cheer for AB, such was his popularity with local supporters. It is also a country where AB has a personal connection as he proposed to his wife, Danielle, at the Taj Mahal in 2012.
He has become known for his entertaining batting style, nicknamed ‘Mr 360’ because of his ability to play unorthodox shots and hit the ball all around the ground. AB’s IPL teammate and India’s top batsman, Virat Kohli, has described him as ‘the best batsman in the world by far’.
But AB has said that all of this success would not have been possible without his faith. He acknowledged that his talent and work ethic are God-given gifts, but also said that the impact of faith on his mentality and approach to the game has been crucial.
Mental health challenges
It has been said that cricket is one of the most mentally demanding sports; there have been many instances of depression and mental health issues affecting players. It is no surprise when you consider the pressurised nature of the sport, nomadic lifestyle of the players and intense scrutiny in the age of social media.
Despite being a team sport, each player’s contribution to the team is objective and statistically measurable. This, combined with relentless analysis from pundits, press and fans, can put a lot of pressure on players. And due to the constant touring of professional players, there is little respite from this pressure. It’s not uncommon for international players to spend more than 40 weeks a year away from their homes.
Former England internationals such as Marcus Trescothick, Andrew Flintoff and Jonathan Trott have all been outspoken about the mental health challenges they’ve battled with as top international cricketers.
Trott gave a harrowing account of the mental torment he battled with while playing for England: ‘I hadn’t slept, I hadn’t eaten, and I hadn’t been able to stop the throbbing pain in my head. The effort of constantly needing to justify my existence, of avoiding the slings and arrows thrown by commentators, by the crowd, by the opposition, by the millions on Twitter, it was starting to warp my thinking… I was scared of failing. I was scared of being made to look bad and letting everyone down.’
The fear of failure and not wanting to let people down is something that has also affected AB and his faith has been key in overcoming this. He has said that faith allows him to play ‘like it doesn’t really matter that much’.
He said that in his early 20s he was battling to establish himself in the national team and struggling with the pressure of not wanting to let people down. He then made a conscious decision to put God first. ‘I’m just here to entertain the people for you, and it’s not about me… that’s what changed everything.’
De Villiers has been outspoken about his faith. In his autobiography, he wrote, ‘My faith and my relationship with God are incredibly important to me… I am not afraid publicly to recognise God’s role in my life.’
He also gave two accounts of times that he felt God spoke to him directly.
The first was as a child when he was in the back of a truck as his family were driving home from visiting friends.
‘Thinking about nothing in particular, staring at the stars, I suddenly started sobbing and then properly crying. It felt very strange. We were all Christians and, as a family, we generally went to church on a Sunday, but all of a sudden, lying on my back, I was overcome with a sense of God’s presence. Nothing like this had happened to me before.
‘I tried to make sense of everything and decided he (God) was telling me what sort of person he wanted me to be. He wanted me to stay humble and always to appreciate what I have… it felt as if I was being brought heavily down to earth.’
The second instance took place 14 years later on a boat in Sydney Harbour when, aged 24, he was a member of the South African cricket team celebrating a series victory over Australia. The day after the win, AB and some of his teammates went out on a fishing trip together. He was lying on the deck of the boat feeling somewhat worse for wear due to a combination of seasickness and the after-effects of the team celebration the night before.
‘Then, all of a sudden, out of the blue, something hit me, and I began crying uncontrollably… once again feeling as if my body was being filled with the Holy Spirit… He seemed to be saying: “What on earth do you think you are doing? Who on earth do you think you are? Some kind of hot-shot international cricketer, scoring runs and winning Test series…thinking you are special, getting drunk too often, taking yourself too seriously? You need to stay humble. You need to make time for the people who are close to you – and you need to appreciate what you have been given.”’
The experience seems to have had a lasting effect on the cricketer. AB has been praised for his humility and bold approach to the sport. He believes that the key to his success has been his decision to always put God first, taking the focus and pressure to succeed off himself and concentrating on living for God.
He has made his approach to cricket and life in general quite clear: ‘That’s why I’m here… to live for him.’