His athletic abilities earned him the moniker of Spider-Man, but in the dressing room, he was a simpleton who never yearned for limelight. As South Africa prepare for their life after AB de Villiers, who retired from international cricket last week, Prasanna Agoram, the team’s performance analyst who has also worked with several IPL teams, gives a peek into the uncomplicated mind of the Proteas superstar and narrates the story behind his nickname
Post-midnight fines session
I can never forget that moment when AB de Villiers broke down in tears. It just tore my heart out. It was after that game against New Zealand in 2015 the World Cup (semifinal) , and everyone saw how it had affected all the players. At the end of it all, back in the dressing room, it felt as if a close family member had died. There wasn’t a single dry eye — be it players or support staff or management; everyone was crying. At around 12.30 in the night, AB and Dale Steyn called us around and said, “Guys we have been here for 40 days, there is no excuse for not winning this game but we gave our best. We lost. Let’s have our ‘fines meeting’,and let’s all leave with a good feeling. We don’t know how many of us will be part of the next World Cup. Let’s just celebrate each other’s company tonight. And thanks for all the support. Come next World Cup, we will be the team to beat.”
Now, he won’t be there for that World Cup. I can’t begin to even think about all that now. Instead, this is the time to look at the great memories that Abbas has given us. We call him Abbas. It’s simple: Abbas from Abraham de Villiers, but our team says it with different meaning. Just separate ‘A’ from it, and you will get it: It’s ‘A Boss’ for us, the way some of us mean it. Because he is the boss. Can anyone who has seen him bat or field deny that?
It was around 1.30 in the morning when we met for that fines meeting. Everyone was broken. Just imagine how much the captain would have been broken. He carried it all on him and wanted to send us off in a good mood. That’s AB for you.
Let me tell you the first time I met him. Here I was, from India, joining South Africa as performance analyst. I will be honest with you, I was shivering all over when I made my first presentation for the team in 2010 during the series against Pakistan. I present my stuff about Pakistan batsman, and as I am walking away from the room, AB taps on my shoulder, and says, “Prasanna (those days I hadn’t still become P-Dogg as the team calls me now) that was a bloody good presentation, keep it up.” Small things like that go a long way. I understood what sort of a man he was then.
Let me tell you about the recent series when Lungi Ngidi made his debut against India. AB calls me aside, and asks me, “Can you please make a flattering motivational video about Ngidi. Keep it a suspense and put it on during team meeting to motivate the young guy.” So I do it. 20 minutes before the team meeting, AB rushes in. Somehow, he has managed to get hold of Ngidi’s friends, and has a video byte from Ngidi’s father, talking about how proud he is that his son is going to play for South Africa. Not only did he somehow scramble and got it done, and even apologised to me for the short-notice he was giving me to add it to the presentation. Just imagine the effect on a 20-year old youngster that a legend like AB is going to this level. That’s the sort of team man he is.
Give me a feel of the bowler, please?
The whole world knows what a wonderful batsman he is. Let me tell you, in all these years, he has probably asked me maximum four times to show his own batting videos. That’s all. How does he function? All he wants is to have a feel about the (opposition) bowlers. He is not interested in what swing a bowler gets, what cutters they bowl, he is not worried about it all. He just wants a feel of the bowlers. Like how he approaches the crease, how he releases it. He will say “P-Dogg, can I have a frame of front-on release when he is bowling the stock ball, and when he is bowling the variations? That’s the only question he asks. “Can I have the video of release position of stock delivery and variations.” He will watch the footage quietly and with focus — that’s how he keeps things simple.
It’s been a pleasure and an honour to have worked with him. I still remember that first series against Pakistan in 2010. He was a youngster who was rated highly by everyone but he hadn’t become as big as he is now, in terms of stature. In my third match for South Africa, he hit a blistering 279 not out in Abu Dhabi. That is the time when I immediately called my Royal Challengers Bangalore coach Ray Jennings that no matter what next year, how many millions it might take, you have to get AB for RCB. Jennings asked me, “this despite the fact that he scored in a Test match?” “Coach, you know me (Jennings calls me Parachute Packer- that I enable people to fly safely) this is the man who is going to be a world beater.” He again said Test match and I told him, we were tottering at 30 for 3 batting first, and if someone can play that kind of a knock – the shots he played against Umar Gul, Saeed Ajmal, who at his peak then, was something else — he is going to be one of the best cricketers that history will ever see.
Does Spider-Man ever swagger?
People often ask me, how is he? Does he, off the field, have the swagger? Does he talk himself up? This is what happens. We will say, “Abbas, what a knock you have played” — be it the 150 off 63 balls or other amazing knocks. And you know what he would say: “I think I got lucky, When I see the replay, I think is it a shot that I played? I tried something and fortunately, it hit the middle of the bat”. Even the catch off Alex Hales, in that IPL game, you can’t believe what he said: that he got in the wrong position and so had to jump like that to take the catch. That’s AB for you.
In all his career highlights, I see that people have mentioned the 150 he hit against West Indies in just 64 balls. There is a backstory to it. Not many know what his real state was. Before the knock, he wasn’t well at all; he was lying down in the dressing room. And once when I came in from the balcony during a drinks break for a quick bite, I saw him lying down with pads, looking in pretty bad shape, and I asked him, “Are you ok?” And he said, “yeah I will be. I will give it my best”. And the rest is history. When it comes to commitment, no one can come close to him. When he came back to the dressing room, he just collapsed. He was so exhausted that he did not have any energy left to talk to anyone. He just lay down on the floor, and rested.
I started calling him Spider-Man — whenever I put a motivation video about him in team meeting, I would superimpose his visual with that of Spider-Man. I am so happy that the moniker has been embraced world over now. Even Virat Kohli said so in a tweet the other day after that catch. But my reason was different. He was a Spider-Man in batting to me, not when he fields. That is still understandable; there are a few other very good fielders out there but in batting — the positions he gets in, the way he sweeps fast bowlers over square-leg. No other batsman in history has created the angles he has. Hence, Spider-Man.
When I joined he was younger, and was one of the humblest persons — very easy going. And the best thing is that he continues to be like that. Let me give you an example from the recent series against India. He was injured for first 3 ODIs and the coach Dale Benkenstien told him that Prasanna had discussed something in batting strategy meeting and can he (AB) please spend few minutes with P-dogg? He came to me before the fourth ODI, and asked me, “Can you please give me 10 minutes?” That’s the sort of humility of a player of his heights and calibre — and this was in 2018. “Can I pick you brains?” And I tell him, “I have nothing to give someone like you.” He replies sincerely, “I want to see what you have about the new Indian bowlers who didn’t play the Tests.” And I slowly tell him this and that — this is the release, variations etc. — and he just nods, watches, and then when I finish, he goes, “Thank you, I will try to use this perspective tomorrow.”
‘Rally around me, I am going to do it’
When we went to Sri Lanka under his captaincy in 2014, we had never won any series against Sri Lanka. The first game we beat them, and in the second match, chasing 240 we were going great guns with AB and Hashim Amla, and AB got out. We lost that game and there was just one more game left. He got up in that team meeting: “Guys I will put my hand up and will take the blame. I messed up last game. Amla was batting so well, and all it needed was someone to bat with him. I gave it away. I am sorry. I could have batted better. “So, come tomorrow, rally around me, I am going to do it.”
Next day, he got a hundred off 60 balls. And that big Hambantota ground looked so small when he went hammer and tongs. We got 340 and defended it — and won a series for the first time in Sri Lanka in any format.”
Even, in that 2015 World Cup, I remember we had never won a single knockout game in big competition like that and we were about to play Sri Lanka. I always give a team-strategy, player strategy, and how they pace the innings, what is their strength. When I gave that, he said, “Fine, if we take your ideas across, what can I expect?” I said the game will be over in 35 overs. He smiled, “I like your confidence and arrogance, I will take it humbly and sees what happens.” We bowled out Lanka under 37 overs. And he came to me later and laughed: “I like your arrogance, but I will like to continue to remain humble and take each thing as it comes.”
Looking back it’s amazing how he changes the match situation and the mood of the team. Why go to the past, let me tell you an incident from his last Test series against Australia. We had already lost the first game, and went from 150 for 1 to 180 for 6 in the second. The Aussies were bowling really good, and it seemed they were unplayable at Port Elizabeth, with their reverse swing. Mitch Starc, Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood were on song.
But the moment he went in, it looked like videogame. The game turned just like that. I remember at the end of the day, we were 20 runs behind, 3 wickets intact, and when the coach asked him, “Abbas, what’s your take? What did you do differently?” Anyone would have said, it’s a difficult to bat on, we have to be very cautious etc… You know how AB reacted? “I just stuck to the basics. I just didn’t want to give my wicket away, and the rest fell in place.” I have never seen him boast, “I did this, I did that”. I have never even seen him swagger like that. That’s just not his personality.
When the coach congratulated him in the team meeting at the end of that match, “Abbas well done, Kagiso well done”, he said: “Hashim Amla and Dean (Elgar) were the ones who started it. They made us easier for us to score runs.”
Everyone knows how good he is in all sports, and not just cricket. When team plays golf, you can’t beat him. People know him that he is a wonderful hockey player, but you can’t beat him in tennis either. He is an introvert, stays quiet when he comes to ground, and does his thing, but he extends himself for the rest of the day, and more. At the fines meetings, he is one of the active persons there, pulling other people’s leg, and would act like a 16-year old boy, making people laugh. I can’t just convey the effect it has on the team camaraderie, and on the juniors in the team. That’s the kind of guy Abbas is.
—As told to Sriram Veera