With perhaps the most memorable bowling action to don South African colours, “Vinnige Fanie” was always going to be remembered, long after he had put the yorkers and away-swingers aside for good.
But the Pretoria-based Fanie de Villiers has probably had even more influence beyond his playing days, as a motivational speaker, a businessman, a popular television pundit and, most poignantly, as a champion for the cause of the deaf.
With both his daughter and his brother having been born with hearing deficiencies, De Villiers admits it took time to realise the calling for him to make a difference.
“You know, when something like that happens to someone close to you, it is easy to say ‘why me?’” he explained.
“But, with time, I started to say why not me. This was an opportunity for someone in my position, as a sports personality, to get more doors open. We have the power to make a difference and mobilise change,” he added.
De Villiers has helped raise well over R1 million to fund sponsorship of hearing aids around the country, once famously sitting on top of a floodlight for an entire Test match.
“People used to wonder about my bowling action, saying that I ran in like that because I wanted to distract the batsmen. But the truth is that I was never the fastest guy, so I found that was the best way for me to build momentum on the way to the crease.”
As his many victims in international cricket will attest, his methods were very successful. Still the most economical ODI bowler statistically, De Villiers prided himself on getting as much out of his abilities as possible.
“I worked blerrie hard, boet. I had to. There was a time, about 20 years ago, when I was trying to figure out the best line to bowl at “the death” in ODI matches. Adrian Kuiper was the best hitter in the world at that stage, so I flew down to Cape Town and bowled for hours at him, trying to find the perfect spot.”
He was also one of the best exponents of the slower ball, an art that some of his teammates initially thought he was crazy to try.
“Jislaaik, I almost dondered Hansie (Cronje) and the boys when they laughed at me for working on my slower balls. But it was a very effective way of stopping the runs, and that was the most crucial part of ODI cricket,” he laughed in reflection.
As a popular motivational speaker De Villiers mixes humour, achievement and adversity to challenge others to do more with their abilities.
And he starts it at home.
His 18-year-old son is currently spending a month at a cricket academy in Jaipur, India. De Villiers says that he has taken him out of his comfort zone, and he is mixing with the locals and learning that nothing comes easy in life.
“He wants to be an international cricketer, and I believe he can be. But 80 percent of the process is mental. He will have to find out how much he really wants to be a professional cricketer; [he will have to] sacrifice a lot and get perspective.”
De Villiers himself says he has always had a soft spot for those less fortunate.
“Some of us don’t realise how lucky we are. We are privileged to live how we live, and you sometimes forget that until you see real hardship. I would often catch a train, and just get lost in the reality of locals’ everyday lives in India. When you see what some people have to get through every day, it humbles you and reminds you to count your blessings,” he remarked. “And yet, the people over there are so passionate about their cricket. It is more than a religion for them, it is their entire life.”
De Villiers has plenty on his plate, as he serves as a director for a number of companies, including hydraulics firm Hansa-Flex, and a medical firm, V-Tech, which produces Herbal Ice, the muscle recovery product.
“I am lucky to have got into those roles, but I think that doors open for you based on how you did things in your career. People remember that and trust you and what you stand for,” he explained.
Added to his regular SuperSport commitments, both as a commentator and as a presenter on the popular BVP, De Villiers is a busy man.
“I have to work, and I love my jobs. Then again, I can’t even call the cricket side of it a job,” he smiles.
“That is a passion, something that has been in me for years and years. And it is so pleasing to see that our cricket is going in the right direction again,” he enthused.
“The success on the field is not a coincidence. People must acknowledge the role played by someone like (acting Cricket South Africa CEO) Jacques Faul. They are doing things right again, and the same applies for getting Gary Kirsten and guys like Allan Donald back into our game,” he added.
“When it comes to the very highest levels, you cannot compromise on quality. You need the very best coaches and we finally have an effective, well-run system on and off the field.”
De Villiers could have easily gone in another direction, as he was a top-class javelin thrower in his teens and just beyond high school.
“I was number two in the country at under-21, and that was a possible career option,” he reflected.
“But I just love the team dynamic, the ethics within that system. I have absolutely no regrets with the route I chose.”
When asked for his favourite moment in the colours of South Africa, “Vinnige” doesn’t plump for the glorious ending in the 1993/94 Test in Sydney, when his 6 for 43 sealed a thrilling, five-run win.
“That was a special day for all of us,” he enthused.
“But for me, the proudest moment was an ODI against the Aussies at Wanderers, when we also won by five runs.”
With Australia needing a run a ball off the last three overs, skipper Kepler Wessels demanded De Villiers bowl two maidens from his end.
“I think I gave away one or two runs in those twelve balls, and also bowled Allan Border to help win the match. As we walked off, the whole stadium was chanting “Fanie, Fanie!.”
“You never forget something like that.”
And as many cricket fans will agree, you never, ever forget someone like “Vinnige Fanie”. – Sunday Tribune