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'I don't have to be the captain to take on a leadership role for South Africa'

"My priority is still South Africa. I love playing for the country and I love the challenge of playing against the best in the world, so it's never been an option for me to give it up" AFP/Getty Images

In 2010, David Miller entered international cricket as a confident 20-year-old with a reputation of being a big-hitter and a rhyme to match his style. "If it's the v, it's in the tree; if it's in the arc, it's out the park," he said, repeating a phrase his father had taught him. For five years, he thrilled with cheeky cameos before finally getting his first international hundred. Today, Miller is the most experienced member of South Africa's ODI side. He has played in two 50-over World Cups, two Champions Trophies and two T20 World Cups, and is a few matches away from becoming the country's most-capped T20I player.

He spoke about his new-found seniority in the side, his lesser-known love for the longest format, and the legacy he hopes to leave behind.

Last summer was a particularly tough one for South African cricket, with only one series win from the five at home. Lungi Ngidi recently revealed it was a pep talk by you that sparked the turnaround and ultimately led to the ODI series win against Australia. Can you tell us a little more about that?
It was during the first match of the ODI series in Paarl. Everyone knows what had gone on with Cricket South Africa and the number of retirements we've had, and that we have a new crop of players in the team. I always thought, even with all those things, we were in a great space because we had a lot of guys who have been around the block, even though not at international level. They are all very experienced domestically. So I just told them that now is the time we need confidence and self-belief to go forward and we need a shift in mindset.

With respect, international cricket is just another game. I said to the guys that all of them have been there before and played in must-win situations at domestic level. All that's changed is the situation has heightened. I told them that everyone is capable of performing, everyone deserves to be here, and it's about not waiting for a Quinton de Kock or David Miller to score the runs. Or even for Dale Steyn or Faf du Plessis to come back. This is the game now and we've got to play it. I think when that realisation that they can do it happened, things changed.

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It sounds like you have really stepped up into a position of seniority. Are you surprised your name has not come up much in captaincy discussions?
I enjoy being a leader, and off the field and during practices, I like to help the guys. When I came up, there were a lot of leaders around and I learnt a lot from them. Then there comes a time when you have to step up and you realise you can lead too. After the 2019 World Cup, I had some time to reflect and I realised that maybe because I always had senior players around me, I didn't necessarily need to step up, but now that they are gone, it's my responsibility to lead. So I changed my mindset.

I don't have to be the captain to take on a leadership role. Quinton de Kock is a good captain. He doesn't overcomplicate things and he gives us a sense of calm. He is also very switched on in the field and knows what he wants from his bowlers and his field placings. He is street-smart and it helps having some senior guys from the domestic scene, like Rassie van der Dussen and Jon-Jon Smuts, around. That's helped me too.

When you look back at the fallout from the World Cup, and given you had already stopped playing first-class cricket, did you consider walking away from international cricket and becoming a T20 freelancer?
With a World Cup, we know that only one team can win, but the way we played and the number of things that didn't go our way - it was really tough.

I thought about things a lot. My priority is still South Africa. I love playing for the country and I love the challenge of playing against the best in the world, so it's never been an option for me to give it up. I know that I play in a few leagues, but that's always outside of my national duties. And I am only 30. I still feel like I have a huge amount to offer.

Does that mean you might consider changing your decision to retire from first-class cricket? You averaged 67 and 44.37 in the last two seasons you played in, so do you think there's a chance you could come back and push for a Test place, especially as batting is such a big focus?
I've never been one to rush into decisions, so when I made the decision to stop playing first-class cricket, I had thought about it for a long time. I knew I didn't start well in my first-class career and that had pushed me to the back of the pecking order, which was fair enough. I also knew I couldn't pick and choose between T20 and first-class, so that's when I made the decision. But things can change and there may still be hope. I might have to have a discussion with Graeme Smith and Mark Boucher and it could be a possibility.

Do you enjoy red-ball cricket?
I absolutely love it. I still love watching Test cricket and I always wanted to play Tests. That was my goal growing up. And after my start, I found that in the last few years of my first-class career, I was scoring heaps and I was really enjoying it. I think I got better as I got older. I was building my innings better.

Time in the middle has been a consideration for you even in limited-overs cricket, where you sometimes get to the crease with just a few overs or balls left and are expected to make a big impact. Would you like to have time to set up your innings or the chance to bat longer?
I've always wanted to bat higher, but at the same time, I felt really privileged to be playing. As you move on in your career, you want more responsibility and more time to get set and then finish off. We all have dreams, but it is also about what's best for the team.

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How have you dealt with the expectation that comes with being labelled a finisher?
It's part of the position that I play, so I've become thick-skinned. No one has to tell me that I should have won a game because I am the first one to know that I should have. It's taken time for me to get used to that role and to what gets said about you when things don't go your way, but then, on the other side, when the rewards come, they are so high that it makes it worthwhile.

How do you train for the role? Is it just about big hitting?
Power-hitting and clearing the rope are things I worked hard on earlier in my career. But now, mentally I am in a great space, so I am working on a few other things. It makes a big difference having Mark Boucher around. He has taught us that the game is always evolving. Guys are getting quicker and smarter, and if you don't keep working to get better, you will fall away. He has got us working on different skills and shots and putting myself under pressure in the nets so that I am prepared for different game-day scenarios.

Has your game progressed more under Boucher than other coaches?
He is so experienced and has played for so long, and him and I have had similar roles in the middle order, so I can pick his brain. He is honest and open, but he is also cut-throat, which you want as a player. There's no beating around the bush. You know exactly where you stand.

What are the big goals for the rest of your career?
The 2023 World Cup is one of my goals and I am excited for what we can do in that tournament. We have a group that is in a similar space - a lot of young guys who are all a similar age and we know they will be available. It's not a case of a whole lot of guys retiring after two years. It's almost like we can grow for the next four years and it's only a matter of time before things click.

So you think South Africa have a chance at the 2023 World Cup?
We are right up there talent-wise and we produce a lot of good players. Maybe what we've lacked is pressure in domestic cricket, because we don't draw the crowds that other countries get and that plays a big role in helping you cope with pressure. That could be something we need to look at and it's started with the Mzansi Super League.

You've played in various leagues around the world. Could you describe the differences in the leagues you have played in? And do you intend to continue playing in them?
All the leagues are unique. The ones I have played in most are the IPL and the CPL. The IPL is a cut above the rest, in terms of pressure, which is what you want. In every game, you are playing in front of 40,000 to 90,000 people. Then, off the field and in hotels, there are a lot of demands, from the public and the owners, so there's a lot going on.

The CPL has a bit more flexibility. They call it the biggest party in sport and I guess it is. I do hope to keep playing, but moving into the latter part of my career, I want to play as much as I can but also listen to my body.

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What has been the highlight of your career so far?
The 2015 World Cup, which might be surprising. It was disappointing to lose and maybe we played some average cricket through the competition, but it was just a really good team vibe and a really good time in my career. I felt like I was playing well and the environment was good and the two months we spent in Australia and New Zealand were really special, even after how it ended. So hopefully we can create something similar again.

Although you're very excited to play cricket, we know live sport is unlikely to return for a while. How are you coping with the current lockdown?
It's tough. I've got a back garden, so I am doing some workouts there, and I've got a passage, so I am hitting tennis balls, which takes me back to my days as a youngster. But that's it. It's frustrating because going into the nets is also a release for me. It gets me in a good space and it's what I love, but I can't do that at the moment. But I also know we are all in the same boat, so it's just about dealing with it for now. And once the lockdown ends, we can see what we can do in terms of team camps and hopefully we can get going again.