For many, these were wasted years, and other great players such as Barry Richards, Graeme Pollock and Vince van der Bijl never gained the international recognition they deserved. 'I really feel for those guys,' De Villiers said, 'and we get reminded about them at every function we go to. If there is any way I could make it up to them, believe me I would. But don't ask me to feel guilty about being in the right place at the right time.'
Timing is everything in sport. Five years ago De Villiers was struggling to play cricket for Northern Transvaal as well as hold down a job as a teacher. A combination of poor pay and no international prospects led him to county cricket and a stint with Kent in 1990. It was a disaster. He returned home at the end of the season and injuries forced him to take up selling insurance, his cricket career all but over.
Fortunately this coincided with the winds of change in South Africa. Nelson Mandela had recently been released, and in 1991 South Africa were welcomed back to international cricket. The inspiration of the moment proved liberating and, against the advice of his boss, De Villiers packed his bag for Torquay and spent the summer of 1992 getting fit in the Devon League.
The gamble was worth it, for over the past year he has become the rock around which South Africa's bowling attack is built. Apart from an outswinger and an unswerving consistency, his stamina and willpower are phenomenal. Procter is full of praise: 'Fanie is a great team man and a real tryer. He just won't lie down, and when he gets the ball to swing he is a top quality bowler to trouble the best.'
Nowhere were these qualities better shown than in the searing heat of the first Test against Australia in Sydney last Christmas where, over after over, De Villiers slowly clawed the game South Africa's way. His marathon stint of six for 43 - as relentless as the bush fires that were holding the city in their thrall - saw South Africa win the unwinnable as Australia failed to score the 131 required. In the next Test in Adelaide, his obduracy compelled him to bat with a broken bone in his hand. Although in great discomfort, he still managed to keep Shane Warne at bay for half the day, and the match was saved.
De Villiers has never hung on the great names of South African cricket past, coming as he does from the close-knit Afrikaner community of Sasolburg, a farming area on the high veldt just south of Johannesburg. 'The first time I saw cricket was when I went to primary school at 11. Before that, my sports - and those of my heroes - were rugby and athletics. Cricket was a mystery to most Afrikaners and, in any case, there just weren't the facilities to play it.' This is no longer the case: five of the present squad, Wessels, Donald, Cronje, Liebenberg and De Villiers, speak Afrikaans as their first language.
'The cricket programmes started about 15 years ago and are already bearing fruit, particularly now the youngsters have some role-models to look up to,' De Villiers said. 'The same is also happening in the black townships, where the programmes set up by Ali Bacher have been going for about 10 years. Soccer is still the most popular sport among blacks, but thanks to a lot of hard work by coaches, players and administrators, there is a great interest in cricket as well. It won't be long before South African cricket reaps the benefits. The first black player to make it to the top will be a millionaire.'
Cricket's progress has been helped by its being a team game, as togetherness is a strong Boer trait. This has also reduced the traditional suspicion with which they regard anything revered by the English. One of the teachers who pioneered the game's introduction was De Villiers's father, Braan, who combined farming with a fierce passion for all sport. Within two years of the game's introduction, Sasolburg primary were the best cricketing school in the region and the young De Villiers was hooked. The sport was also sweeping schools all over the high veldt and the Orange Free State.
Playing Test cricket has given De Villiers the opportunity to see other countries at close quarters, something that was not possible until a few years ago, and being a part of history clearly appeals to him.
Ever since South Africa's return to world cricket, he has had a new lease of life, and he has gratefully taken his chance with both hands. If the ball swings for him over the next few months, he will be hoping his slip cordon can do the same.
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