London: South Africa captain AB de Villiers believes England all-rounder Ben Stokes has taken his game to the “next level” in the Indian Premier League but stressed the tournament had improved many of his players too.
The Proteas are set to come up against Stokes in a three-match one-day international series starting next week that will act as a warm-up ahead of June’s Champions Trophy tournament in England.
Stokes struck a maiden Twenty20 century while playing for the Rising Pune Supergiant in the IPL Twenty20 and also took 12 wickets during the tournament.
England will hope the Durham star can transfer that form into 50-over cricket, beginning with Wednesday’s first ODI at Headingley.
“Stokes is a fantastic cricketer, with both bat and ball,” said de Villiers at Hove on Thursday ahead of South Africa’s tour opener against Sussex on Friday.
“He’s definitely got something special about him.
“A lot of guys lose their way in the IPL, and others find the next level in their game. Ben Stokes definitely lifted his game and I think it would have done him the world of good.
“But a few of our players who played over there lifted their game. I faced (leg-spinner) Imran Tahir in the nets and he’s certainly stepped his game up a bit, and come up with a few new deliveries, and so has everyone else who was there.”
South Africa are currently top of the International Cricket Council’s ODI rankings but will be facing an England side who have lost only one series at home, a 3-2 defeat by world champions Australia, since their embarrassing first-round exit at the 2015 World Cup.
“I remember thinking in 2015 they had hit rock bottom,” said de Villiers. “The way they came back from that earned a lot of respect around the world.”
South Africa, like England yet to win the World Cup, suffered fresh heartbreak in 2015 after losing to co-hosts New Zealand in a thrilling semi-final.
“I haven’t won one of these trophies in my career, so I’m pretty desperate to win one, and we’ll do anything we can to get out on top,” said de Villiers.
“We know these tournaments are very competitive – there are eight teams that want to win it and can win it but we do think we’ve got a very good squad here. I’ve got a good feeling about this one.
“But first things first, we want to win the series against England.”
De Villiers had an elbow operation last year but returned for South Africa’s white-ball matches in New Zealand earlier this year, and also played for Royal Challengers Bangalore in the IPL.
South Africa are in England for a three-month tour that as well as the Champions Trophy and other white-ball internationals also includes a four-Test series.
But de Villiers, one of the outstanding batsmen of his generation, has opted out of the Test series in a bid to reduce his workload after being a mainstay for the Proteas in all three international formats – Test, ODIs and Twenty20s.
However, the 33-year-old insisted he had not retired from Test cricket completely.
“It’s the decision for this year,” he said. “The decision was to play a bit less. I’m feeling fresh and looking forward to playing a tournament.”
He added there was no chance of him reversing his decision so he could play in the Tests with England.
“I haven’t retired, no. But I’m not going to change my decision. I’ll look indecisive.”
After the Sussex match, South Africa face Northamptonshire on Sunday before the start of the England series.