Having been his teammate at RCB since 2011, AB de Villiers has watched Virat Kohli evolve as a cricketer and leader. © BCCI

Having been his teammate at RCB since 2011, AB de Villiers has watched Virat Kohli evolve as a cricketer and leader. © BCCI

When Virat Kohli first hit the big league, playing in the Indian Premier League and then for the country, there were several people who doubted whether he had it in him to be a leader of men. While there was no questioning his talent, the epithet of ‘future India captain’ didn’t always gel with the angry young man persona Kohli had.

Cut to 2017, and Kohli has silenced almost every doubter. One of the many who were sceptical of Kohli maturing into the leader he has become today was AB de Villiers. The two are thick mates and have been teammates at Royal Challengers Bangalore since 2011, giving de Villiers a first-hand view of Kohli’s growth, and a new appreciation of his qualities as captain.

“It has been an amazing journey to watch him grow as a leader,” said de Villiers on Thursday (April 6). “I think in the start when the people mentioned to me he has leadership qualities and might become a captain one day, I doubted it. I thought he was very emotional. Always a great player, but I thought he was emotional with his reactions. I think he has found a way to deal with it. He is still an emotional character, he loves winning, and is very passionate but he has found a way to really manage that and control that.

“I know he is a great asset for Indian cricket, he leads exceptionally well,” continued de Villiers, highlighting Kohli’s captaincy in India’s recent 2-1 series win against Australia. “He has showed he has skills with his captaincy and he has taken all the doubters and showed them he can conquer anything. He did not have the best of series with the bat in the last series, but what stood out for me was his leadership. He led from the front and it showed. I think that’s the greatest test for a captain – when you don’t do well personally, how you come through as a captain. He came through with flying colours. They beat the Aussies and the way they controlled themselves by not going overboard with the celebrations, they looked the opposition in the eye. I think all of those things come from him. He has become a true leader and I am excited to see how he is going to grow in the next five years.”

"He did not have the best of series with the bat in the last series, but he led from the front and it showed. I think that's the greatest test for a captain." © AFP

“He did not have the best of series with the bat in the last series, but he led from the front and it showed. I think that’s the greatest test for a captain.” © AFP

Both men have been the lynchpins in the Bangalore franchise, and whenever they are asked about each other, they always refer to the other as ‘the best batsman in the world’ in a style reminiscent of Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke, the great science fiction writers who addressed each other as ‘the second best science fiction writer’.

When asked about it, de Villiers laughed. “I don’t think I can be the best batsman. I don’t play all formats,” he pointed out, referring to his decision to take a break from Test cricket in 2017. “He is definitely the best player in the world. He has got competition in quite a few players like Steven Smith, Kane Williamson, and there are a lot of players – 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.”

However, de Villiers did think that both he and Kohli had ‘walked the same path’ in their careers, and that among the qualities they had picked up from each other, Kohli had perhaps learned the value of being calmer while making decisions.

“I am a few years ahead of him,” said de Villiers, who made his international debut in 2004, with Kohli having taken his first steps in international cricket in 2008. “I think I was very similar to him – play 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 was very similar to that. I haven’t ‘learned’ that from him but it is nice to see the way he plays. That is probably something that I enjoy watching, that passion. He is giving me that passion in the old age!

“Kohli has learnt from me to control things a bit better, stay calm under pressure.” © BCCI

“Something he has learned from me is to control things a bit better, stay calm under pressure, and sometimes to hide the passion a little bit in order to make the clear decisions and the right decisions. We have walked the same kind of road – I have played for 13 years, he has been around for 9 or 10. 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.”

Bangalore, the losing finalists in IPL 2016, didn’t have a good start to their campaign this season, with the team being hit by a spate of injuries. Kohli won’t be back till the shoulder injury he picked up in the Australia series heals, and de Villiers himself has been battling a back niggle. KL Rahul too is out of the tournament while Sarfaraz Khan is likely to miss a large chunk, if not the entire IPL. As a result, Shane Watson led the team in their opening encounter against Sunrisers Hyderabad on Wednesday, the team they had lost the 2016 final to. Bangalore ended up losing by 35 runs after a rusty performance in the field.

De Villiers held that going into the first game was always going to be a difficult proposition with the team changes, though he did acknowledge that some mis-fields and dropped chances cost Bangalore the chance to win the match. “Last night’s game was always going to be difficult. The team that played the final last year and the team that played last night – I think there were about five or six changes,” he explained. “So it was always going to be difficult to hit the ground running without Virat, myself, and KL Rahul, leaders in their own right.

“But I have never doubted the skill and the talent of the team. I think we let ourselves down with tiny little basics in the field. If we had hung onto the catches, and stopped some of the fumbles, they would have got around 180, which would have been a very chaseable total. So, tiny little mistakes were made last night. But we have got a hell of a group – there is a lot of talent in all bases. I have no doubt in my mind that we will come back strong from this.”

De Villiers is confident that Bangalore have a strong unit and will come back strongly after the defeat in the IPL 2017 opener, particularly once he and Kohli return to the fold. © BCCI

De Villiers is confident that Bangalore have a strong unit and will come back strongly after the defeat in the IPL 2017 opener, particularly once he and Kohli return to the fold. © BCCI

On the sidelines of the game, Kohli said that he would only return to action once he was “120% fit” and not before, particularly with the Champions Trophy coming up in June. It was a sentiment de Villiers agreed with wholeheartedly.

“I think that’s how it should be. No matter where you’re playing or when,” offered de Villiers. “Even though there’s a tournament coming, that’s not the point. I don’t think any guy should step on the field if he’s not 100%. I’ve always done it that way. Even though I’m very, very keen to get on the field, I’ll make sure that I’m 100% fit because if you go on the park and you’re 90%, you might be out for longer anyway. It doesn’t make sense.”

Which naturally led to the question of how far from being fully fit de Villiers was. “I’m going to test it out this afternoon,” came the reply. “We’ve got a nets session. I’ll hit a couple of balls, see what it feels like and then we’ll make a call.”

While there remains a good chance de Villiers will be available for selection when Bangalore play their next match – against Delhi Daredevils on home ground on Saturday – he did confirm that he wouldn’t be around for the entire tournament, with a three-match One-Day International series in England scheduled from May 24.

The IPL final is scheduled for May 21, should Bangalore make it that far, but South Africa have two warm-up matches against Sussex (May 19) and Northamptonshire (May 21) before their ODI series against England.

“Yeah, we play three ODIs, go back home a little bit early from the IPL to prepare for the three ODIs and the Champions Trophy. It’s something I look forward to,” said de Villiers, who should be around till the end of the league phase at least, with Bangalore playing Delhi in the last league match on May 14.

AB de Villiers was speaking to a small group of journalists at a promotional event for his app AB 17 developed by FanHero.