LONDON – It was November and England one-day captain Eoin Morgan had just started a short spell with Tshwane Spartans in South Africa’s Twenty20 competition.
Morgan, snapped up as one of the franchise’s marquee signings, was staying in a hotel, but decided he would like to spend a couple of nights in the house of Spartans teammate AB de Villiers.
The former South Africa captain welcomed Morgan into his home, and the two of them spent a few nights in between games nattering away over glasses of red wine. On one of the days, the teammates went for what was meant to be a relaxing game of golf.
Instead, Morgan spent much of the round on the phone to the England selectors about who should be picked for the forthcoming World Cup.
“He missed about eight holes,” De Villiers tells Sportsmail. “He wasn’t the best partner that day!”
It’s no surprise, really, that the captain who left no stone unturned in pursuit of global glory was preparing even on his days off.
The pair rarely talked cricket, but when they did, Morgan used it as an opportunity to get inside the head of one of the most celebrated captains in the game.
“We had a little bit of talk about captaincy and the pressures that come with it,” says De Villiers, whose incredible array of strokes has lit up international cricket for the last 15 years.
“We shared a couple of experiences and memories. It’s fair to say he took a bit out if it!”
Eight months later, Morgan was lifting the World Cup above his head. “I’m claiming it, 100 percent,” said De Villiers with a laugh. “I was the reason!”
While Morgan was at the heart of the action at Lord’s on Sunday evening, De Villiers was on the sofa in his front room back in South Africa.
He spent the day jabbing lazily at the remote, flicking between the cricket and the Wimbledon men’s final, being a huge fan of Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic.
As England’s pursuit of 242 grew tenser and tenser, De Villiers realised the tennis would have to wait.
“When it came down to the last few overs, I told my wife, ‘This is going to be tight’. I didn’t quite expect it to be that tight! The moment I realised it was going to be a super over in a World Cup final, I almost collapsed!
“The word that came to mind was destiny. It was just meant to be England. Everything happened for them to win the World Cup. This is their time. It is actually a beautiful thing.”
At the same time for De Villiers, the sight of England winning the World Cup by, to use Ian Smith’s sublime final-ball commentary, “the barest of margins” when Jos Buttler broke the stumps to give them victory on boundaries scored, rekindled some painful memories.
It took the 35-year-old back to Auckland and the semi-final four years ago. South Africa, under his captaincy, were two balls away from the World Cup final. New Zealand needed five runs.
Grant Elliott, who had been dropped in the previous over, smashed Dale Steyn into the stands and sent the Kiwis to the final. “I know the feeling when it just doesn’t go your way,” he said. “It was horrible. Everything went wrong.
“We had opportunities to win the game 10 times and we didn’t take one of them. I am sure New Zealand are feeling that now.”
He remembered, too, how the eight-year-old AB had watched South Africa defeat Pakistan in 1992, with Jonty Rhodes diving through the air to run out Inzamam-ul-Haq, before the heartbreak of semi-final defeat by England.
Then he was back watching South Africa lose the 1999 semi-final to Australia when the match ended in a tie – and Allan Donald and Lance Klusener were run out needing one to win, sending the Aussies through.
Yet for all that pain, those moments inspired him to make his own great World Cup moments. And that is what he, and everyone associated with English cricket, hopes Sunday’s win can do for the game in this country.
And why shouldn’t it? After all, the match was shown on terrestrial television and watched by over eight million people.
That is another reason De Villiers is here.
Clad in his pink Middlesex shirt, ready for the start of the Vitality Blast on Thursday, he is on hand to unveil a new artificial pitch at Deptford Park – one of more than 50 such facilities opening around the capital as a result of a partnership between the ECB and the London Cricket Trust, the charity formed by Essex, Kent, Middlesex and Surrey.
“The beautiful part is that we don’t have to do much,” said De Villiers. “The most important thing was that the final was a close game, played in a good spirit.
“That is enough inspiration for youngsters. All they need now is somewhere to play.”
This World Cup brought further disappointment for De Villiers as South Africa finished a lowly seventh in the group table, with defeats by Bangladesh and Pakistan proving particularly costly as they missed out on the semi-finals.
Then there was the storm that followed South Africa’s flop, after it was revealed De Villiers, who retired from international cricket in May last year, had spoken to captain Faf du Plessis the day before the squad was announced and offered to play.
“It was a very casual, low-key, private conversation between two mates who have known each other for almost 30 years,” he said.
“I was batting well at the time and I just wanted to say that if the guys needed me, great; if not, no worries.
“It was two mates chatting over a beer. It should never have got further than that. I don’t know who leaked it – I wish I did!’
South Africa certainly missed a player with 25 ODI hundreds and an average of 53.50.
But De Villiers believes there is enough talent in the squad to come back strongly in 2023, as England did after their dismal showing in 2015.
And, who knows, the veteran might be a part of it. He hopes so. “I would love to be involved and play my part. Ideally off the pitch for now, but you never know.”Daily Mail