'Don't care about reaching 10,000 Test runs'
Having opted to take a break from Test cricket as part of his workload-management programme, AB de Villiers opens up on coming back from injury, striking the right work-life balance, and the adulation he receives in India.
You're closing in on the 10000-run mark in Test cricket.
I mean no disrespect to anyone who has ever achieved that, but it means absolutely zero to me to achieve 10,000 runs. I don't care about that at all.
You are coming back from multiple injuries - a long-standing elbow problem and a back issue. Does it feel like a rebirth of sorts?
It's something I haven't dealt with a lot in my career. I haven't had a lot of injuries. But every single time I've had an injury, I've come back stronger. Throughout my twenties, thirties - doesn't matter where - I've always felt it's an opportunity to get back and prove you've worked really hard at your game.
How important is managing workloads these days?
I haven't played a lot, but if you look at my form coming back against New Zealand, I still played all right. It's not easy, but it's a great challenge to get away from the game and then to work hard and work your way back into it. I've found inspiration through a lot of athletes who have done that in the past. I think of [Rafael] Nadal - the tennis player - the way he's come back has inspired me a lot. He'd been out for quite a long time as well. But that's part of the game: you come and you go. I'm still motivated to play for as long as possible, and as long as that motivation is there mentally, nothing is going to stop me.
Is it difficult to return from injuries now than compared to in your twenties?
It doesn't at all get difficult. I think I've been blessed being light on my feet. I'm still agile and athletic. Injuries are part of the game. I've always struggled with my back since I was about 16 years old, so it's something that's not going to go away. But I work hard at it to manage it. It's not now that I'm in my thirties I get all these injuries - it's something that's always been part of the game and, therefore, one of the main reasons why I wanted to play less Test cricket.
I don't like the words "managing workloads"; I think it's nonsense. I know my body and I know my mind. As long as I'm fresh, I'll play for as long as possible. I know when I need a break as well.
Have you struck that balance between cricketing life and personal life?
It's crucial to have a good balance in life in general, especially when it comes to socialising and working away from the game. Preparing for games, the game itself, time with family... it's really important to get that balance right. It's something I probably haven't got right over the last three-four years. Therefore, I'm sitting with a couple of injuries.
That's a better way of describing it: balance - balancing your life and having enough of everything to stay fresh. It's not about managing my workload, because it's not the only thing my life is about. I've got a lot of areas in my life that I need to attend to. We're getting that balance now and I feel really happy. You can see in the park I've got a smile on my face again, which might not have been clear in the last few years. It's definitely back and I'm very excited just to play cricket and win games of cricket for my teams.
Is Test cricket facing an existential crisis?
The way T20 has hit the ground, it was always going to be a challenge for Test cricket to keep the people involved and interested. But the ICC have got it right in the last few years, not neglecting Test cricket. There's been some unbelievable Test cricket played over the last five-seven years. Some games I couldn't believe what I was witnessing. I've no doubt in my mind that the format is going nowhere; it's definitely here to stay... forever, hopefully. I love watching Test cricket, and as a player, I know it's the real challenge and the real test for a player. If you can survive in Test cricket, then you know you can play the game. I believe the ICC have got it right over the last few years to make sure Test cricket survives.
Will the importance of ODI cricket decline?
Hopefully not, because I still want to win a World Cup. Hopefully it doesn't go away. Once we win the World Cup then it can go. No, I'm kidding (laughs).
I think the three formats that we have are very, very unique. Every single format is completely different. In T20, you see all the skills, the adrenaline rush and the match-winners coming out of nowhere. In ODI, it's almost a little bit of a taste of both the formats, where the bowler's got more time to work a batsman out, and a batsman has more time to get himself in and then express himself. It's a beautiful format; I wouldn't like to see it go anywhere. And obviously Test cricket - it's a test of endurance and mental skill. All three formats are so unique, and I really think there's room for all three formats to survive in the future.
Do you get more time now to fine-tune your 360-degree strokeplay?
I don't practise it a lot. Because of the schedule we have. If you're an international cricketer and you play IPL as well, you honestly have no time at all to work on skills away from the game. Now that I've stepped down from Test cricket for a while, I've had a bit of time in the nets to just showcase my skills and work on that, which is great. But it's something I've developed over the years, on the park. I've had no downtime to go and work on things like that. I was forced to work on it on the park.
I don't like to practise it in any way. I feel it's something that comes out naturally. It's almost like I've got to set my foundation and a platform to express myself at the end. Those things just came naturally to me over the years.
I practise my shots, but I don't practise the silly, funny, lap shots and things like that. There's a time and a place for those shots. So I'll wait for it. When I sense it's the right time, I'll play it. It's not something I can force. I like to keep my basics in place. I always believe cricket is a basic game, where you need to have strong coaching-manual shots in place. If you do those well, the rest will follow.
What is the impact of the changing landscape in T20 cricket?
The first thing is to play for South Africa. That's the first priority: to play international cricket. And then where the schedule allows it - this will be different to every player around the world - I think it is a great thing to go play cricket overseas in different conditions and different cultures. Guys who can't play the IPL or different T20 tournaments, it is a great opportunity to play in county cricket in England. That's always good for your cricket. So, I'm a big supporter of once your country's cricket is done for the season to go and play wherever you can to pick up more experience and get better at your game.
I have played the IPL for nine years now, and it has done wonders for my game. So I always encourage the younger players - once the season finishes at home, that is my foundation and that is where I learnt 90% of my cricketing and mental skills - to go out play elsewhere and up your skills. Look, I am 33, in a different stage of my career. I can't play in every single tournament. But still, for me, international cricket comes first. The formats that I can manage mentally and physically, come first to me. Then, when I have an opportunity to play in another league around the world, it is always great.
What have you and Virat Kohli learnt from each other? And, according to you, who is currently the best batsman in the world?
I don't think I can be the best batsman. I don't play all formats. He [Kohli] is definitely the best player in the world. He has got competition in quite a few players, like Steve Smith, Kane Williamson, and there are a lot of players - with Quinton de Kock coming through - around the world. But I truly believe you can be the best player only if you play all formats in cricket. If you are in the top five in all three formats, that's when you know you can really play the game.
I am a few years ahead of him. I think I was very similar to him - played the game with a lot of passion, energy, and good skills, working hard at your game, not accepting defeat at all. He is always competitive; he is one of the most competitive people I have ever come across. I haven't learnt that from him but it is nice to see the way he plays. His passion is something I love watching in him. He is giving me that passion in my old age.
Something he has learnt from me is maybe to control things a bit better, stay calm under pressure, and sometimes to hide the passion a little bit in order to make clear decisions and right decisions. We have walked the same kind of road - I have played for 13 years, he has been around for nine or ten. I think he is on the same kind of road, realising it is not all about passion and energy all the time. You have to step back sometimes and make some clear decisions. I think he really is close to achieving that, and that is maybe something he has seen from me.
Can you explain the kind of reception you get when you walk out to bat in India?
It is difficult to explain that. It takes my breath away completely - what's happened over here in India. I've enjoyed coming here since the first time I arrived here at the Commonwealth championships when I was 19 years old. It is a different culture, different experience, and I love playing in front of these fans. There is so much joy and passion for the game of cricket, so it was great here coming for the Test series [in 2015]. It was my 100th Test as well. I could not have asked for a better reception and better place to play my 100th Test. I always hold this place close to my heart. It will be great to come back here for another ten years for the IPL - that is a little bit out of the question, but hopefully, as long as possible!
You get this reception and adulation not just in Bengaluru but also across various parts of India.
I know. It's crazy. I scored a hundred in a one-day game in Kanpur once, and I couldn't hear my own celebrations. That was how the crowd was - that was crazy. It is a huge privilege and a honour to see that happening and come back to India every time and knowing I have got a lot of fans. Hopefully, I will keep entertaining them and giving them back as much as possible.
AB de Villiers was speaking in Bengaluru at a promotional event for his app, AB 17, by FanHero
Deivarayan Muthu is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo