The greatest achievements in life don’t come easy. And they seldom come quickly.
The delivery of AB de Villiers’ signature to the Brisbane Heat is the exemplification of this theory.
While having one of the most decorated and destructive batsmen international cricket has seen play in the Big Bash League – considered one the game’s premier T20 competitions – might seem a natural fit, the journey to making it happen has been prolonged and complex.
The player in question is clearly a man in demand. With over 20,000 international and 8,000 T20 runs to his resume, why wouldn’t he be? So, how did it come about that one of the modern-day greats would be turning out in teal? After all, it was reported with almost certainty earlier this year that de Villiers was set to skip this summer’s BBL.
To set the scene, cast your mind back over two-and-a-half years ago to one of the most memorable games in BBL history. It’s semi-final time of the 2016-17 season and the Heat and Sydney Sixers are locked in an intense battle at the Gabba. Locked on 167 runs apiece after 20 overs, the game heads into a Super Over.
Like many around the world, AB de Villiers is transfixed on the contest, highlighted by his three-sentence tweet.
“Proper Cricket match in Brisbane! Great entertainment. Who’s gonna take the super over?? #BBL06,” the January 25, 2016 tweet reads.
BBL|06 is a season that lives fond in the memory of Heat fans. It’s one where New Zealand legend Brendon McCullum returned to the club after a five-year absence in emphatic fashion. His 19 sixes for the competition are trumped only by teammate Chris Lynn who hits a staggering 26 maximums from three less games.
Lynn and McCullum’s exploits have them aptly dubbed the ‘Bash Brothers’. It’s blockbuster entertainment.
While the Heat would eventually go down to the Sixers in the Super Over thriller, the excitement generated by the Lynn and McCullum juggernaut that season had Brisbane Heat General Manager Andrew McShea on the lookout for a name that could match and complement the duo.
“AB de Villiers is going to be one of the first names that is written on the whiteboard when it comes to player recruitment in T20 cricket worldwide. We had initial discussions internally after the semifinal loss in BBL|06 which was February 2017. At that stage the thinking was trying to secure AB alongside Brendon McCullum as our two overseas players, which was a mouth-watering prospect,” McShea tells Brisbaneheat.com.au.
“Unfortunately, given AB’s international cricket commitments at that time, it wasn’t feasible, however he would remain a priority focus for when the time was right.”
A BBL team headlined by Lynn, McCullum and de Villiers – seems too good to be true. And unfortunately, it was.
THE SECOND PITCH
Early 2018 marked a transitional time for the Brisbane Heat.
The successes of the 2016-17 season gave a sense of optimism that momentum would be taken into BBL|07 and the Heat would again be challenging for the trophy. And things looked bright after a 4-2 start to the campaign, however a run of four losses to close the season meant the Heat would just miss out on finals.
Injury and then a call up to the Australian team had limited Lynn’s impact, and McCullum was finishing the second season of his three-team deal, though he had an option to head into a fourth should he feel up to it.
With an eye to the future, attention turned back to de Villiers.
“In early 2018, AB was still our number one priority,” McShea tells us.
“We planned for BBL|08 to likely to be McCullum’s last season with us and our thinking quickly became about how can we transition from an iconic leader like Brendon to an iconic leader like de Villiers. So, the pursuit certainly hadn’t stopped.
“Brendon had done an incredible job in developing the identity of the Brisbane Heat and a key objective in securing AB was to keep that momentum going and evolve it for the club both on and off the field.”
A pitch to bring de Villiers out for the 2018-19 season was made, but due to international, family and other T20 commitments, the answer was again no.
ANOTHER KNOCK BACK
At the close of the BBL|08 season – one which saw the Big Bash expanded to a 14-game season and two new broadcasters brought in - the consensus among senior officials was that star power was needed. Top of the list was AB de Villiers.
The race for the hottest signature in the T20 game was alight and the Heat was one of many clubs with their hat in the ring.
“Early this year we were faced with the realisation that Brendon had retired. If we were ‘blue-sky-ing' the type of player we wanted to bring in, AB was still at the top of that list. The fact he had stepped away from international cricket meant 2019-20 was the season where hopefully we could secure him.
“Then in March or April there was talk in the media that he was being pursued by seven or eight clubs, and unfortunately it fell over,” McShea says.
“We maintained a good level of communication, and I believe trust, with AB’s management. We understood that AB was very keen to have Christmas and New Years at home with his family, which we respect and supported. So, we knew his position but did our best to keep the option of playing for the Heat there."
THE TURNING POINT
In July this year, Heat management were rewarded for their tenacity and professionalism when they learned that interest from de Villiers to play in BBL|09 had returned. And they struck while the proverbial iron was red-hot.
“Things started to turn in early July when we got a sense that the door was slightly ajar and AB could possibly be available to play six to eight games plus finals. Once we knew the fixture, we were able to figure out what games he could play and that brought it to life.
“Positively, there was a feeling that this could actually happen. During July we were able to come to an agreement for what is now confirmed as six home-and-away matches plus full availability of finals. We were obviously incredibly excited and satisfied for AB to confirm that he would join the Brisbane Heat,” McShea says.
The Heat GM puts the signing of de Villiers down to multiple factors. “Certainly, persistence was a key factor from our perspective. No doubt also the influence of Darren Lehmann and various discussions over the last two and a half years between AB, McCullum and Lynn.
“Darren’s influence on describing his vision to AB earlier this year was crucial, not simply on the field, but what his family will experience off the field, no doubt that was a turning point.”
De Villiers tell us as much when we catch up with him in his home city in Pretoria.
“I was in close contact with Darren over email and that was a big part of the reason why I am coming over. He certainly pushed me over the edge. He’s a great guy, I am sure we will get to know each other well over the tournament,” he tells us of Lehmann.
“I’ve always had a lot of respect for the way we played his game, for the way he handled everything when he was with the Aussie team, and I am sure I can learn a bit from him with my batting. I am looking forward to playing under him.”
Fast forward a few months to October 1, 2019 and Heat skipper Chris Lynn is beaming. It’s a significant day with the Heat able to tell the world the good news… AB is coming.
“Is it December 25th? Christmas has come early,” Lynn says with a broad smile.
“It’s been a long process. About two-and-a-half years since that Super Over semifinal. Huge credit needs to go to Andrew McShea, Darren Lehmann and the Brisbane Heat staff for getting this done. It’s a great day,” he says of the news that de Villiers will join him in teal this summer.
News of de Villiers’ signing is the dominant story across Australia on a day when media attention would normally be on that week’s NRL Grand Final.
And Lynn is able sum up the sentiment of the occasion pretty darn well.
“It’s the biggest signing in BBL history.”
Great things don’t happen easily. But the graft is worth it when it pays off.