Cricket autobiographies flit between bland and interesting. Those written by current cricketers often err with the former, while their retired counterparts succeed with the latter. AB de Villiers’ memoirs fall satisfyingly in the middle, offsetting the mundane with the intriguing.
Unlike, say, Alastair Cook or Stuart Broad, who released autobiographies at the age of 24 and 26 respectively, the 32-year-old de Villiers’ timing is far more appropriate – and speaks to a willing, rather than obliged, audience.
Requiring a few ‘sighter’ chapters before producing a proverbial innings of substance, de Villiers unashamedly declares his Christian faith at the fore before providing readers with insight into a childhood spent fashioning much of the shot selection, stroke play and cricketing relationships galvanised years later.
While several pages recall more than a decade of home series and tours to all corners of the globe, and unfortunately read like an empty collection of match reports, ample time is dedicated to de Villiers’ particularly memorable performances. January 2015’s world-record destruction of the West Indies in the second ODI at the Wanderers and April 2008 and November 2010’s superb double centuries, against India and Pakistan respectively, present the most pride. De Villiers is quick to laugh at himself, too, after gathering four World Cup ducks – and getting out to a delivery that bounced twice during a Test in Bangladesh.
Well documented as a talented sportsman, de Villiers dispels rumours spread by the otherwise reputable Sky Sports. He was not shortlisted for inclusion in the national hockey squad, he doesn’t hold any swimming or badminton records, he was never in line for competitive football selection and did not play rugby at South African representative level. True, he was a solid golfer and an excellent tennis player during his formative years, but ultimately the desire to participate in team sport saw the greens, fairways and courts take a backseat to nets, pitches and outfields.
The genuine delight and fulfilment derived from 2008’s historic Test series wins in England, where de Villiers successfully countered being labelled a ‘cheat’, and Australia, where he graciously humbled the outspoken Matthew Hayden, is palpable – and there is no shortage of sincere appreciation for Graeme Smith, during those tours, before and beyond.
Mark Boucher, Faf du Plessis, Dale Steyn and Jacques Kallis, too, enjoy de Villiers’ admiration, while England spinner Monty Panesar, Pakistan seamer Mohammad Asif and Australian fast bowler Mitchell Johnson are rated among his most challenging opposition. Reverence for the late Hansie Cronje and the underrated Mickey Arthur doesn’t go unnoticed, while grievances with Ashwell Prince and Ray Jennings required greater transparency, not truncated censorship.
Kallis, de Villiers acknowledges, was a major influence in his path to becoming the number one-ranked Test and ODI batsman – and sympathy for Boucher, who had to retire from playing international cricket due to an eye injury, heartfelt. De Villiers’ attempt to substantiate the trio’s bond, complemented by Smith and Justin Kemp’s contribution but mistakenly perceived as a negative clique, is honourable. Preferred positions in the batting order, his occasionally begrudging role as a wicketkeeper and a few indulgent performances with the ball make for entertaining reading.
His opinion on match-fixing – and the controversial selection of Vernon Philander ahead of Kyle Abbott for the 2015 World Cup semi-final against New Zealand – also deserved elaboration. Never excusing nor justifying early exits in major tournaments, though, he is realistic and sound in his defence against the so-called ‘chokers’ tag. De Villiers, meanwhile, vehemently declares “the Indian Premier League has gradually taken the intimidation factor out of cricket.” His admission that “the downside of losing is greater than the need to win” is certainly enlightening, but arguably damning.
Passion, patriotism, loyalty, selfless servanthood and a constant battle against mediocrity are widespread, but the book lacks depth a delayed release should have allowed. However, some very relatable tales – and a willingness to give of himself in print where he can’t in person – ultimately excuse the deficit.
“Leaders eat last,” de Villiers concludes – a fitting sentiment, ethos even, for a man whose humble approach, in life and this book, belies the trappings of veritable superstardom.
Written with Edward Griffiths and published by Pan MacMillan, ‘AB: The Autobiography’ has been released in Afrikaans, too, affording this substantial demographic further accessibility to a relatively approachable role model and hero.
By Jonhenry Wilson