It’s befitting his state of mind for the last couple of years and the way international cricket has been caught at the wedge, unsure of its own viability, that AB de Villiers chose to retire from international cricket after playing in the IPL. On Wednesday afternoon, he called his friends from cricketing fraternity, and after apologising for the decision and telling them that he was mentally exhausted, he placed his request: Don’t try to change my mind.
His career, especially in the last couple of years, has been a statement in itself about how South African cricketers have been slowly peeling away from international cricket, and how T20 franchise cricket has enabled men to take the toughest decision imaginable: of quitting the sport at its most competitive level. It does make one wonder what would have been the scenario if South African cricket was more financially viable like the big three of India, Australia and England. First Morne Morkel, now the most popular South African cricketer ever has gone just like that. With a World Cup in a year’s time, which offered the greatest legacy possible for AB, won’t now have its biggest star. AB is too exhausted mentally to carry on.
The man who brought reflexive skills rare even among athletic sportsmen, and whose final cricketing gif would be that insane leap to pluck a catch out of thin air in his penultimate IPL game, had finally run out of gas. As a boy, he tugged in a green Jonty (Rhodes) cap with Jonty inscribed in yellow. He had bought it at the first Test he ever watched live at Centurion and had always wanted to be like Rhodes. In the end, he achieved a lot more: he created angles seldom seen in cricket history, he flew around as if he had wings, he pouched the little red thing as if it was supernaturally attracted to his palms, he was insanely popular in India with shrieks of ‘ABD ABD’ reverberating a lot louder than they did in South Africa. He was a step above others in T20, a wonderful ODI batsman who could have achieved a lot more. And when he returned to Test cricket to earn respect with his knocks against India and Australia this year, the hope had returned. That is gone now.
For outsiders who saw Jacques Kallis, the best South African cricketer of our times and someone who has achieved a lot more than de Villiers, play his farewell Test in front of empty stands in Durban, it made us feel that cricketers aren’t a cherished lot. It’s not the case. When de Villiers announced his decision to take a break from cricket, Ashwell Prince, a man venerated by those cricketers who grew up when non-whites didn’t school together with whites, took him to task.
When de Villiers’ childhood friend and captain Faf du Plessis said that “he has earned the right to do what he wants to do”, Prince didn’t hold back. “Ridiculous statement, just wondering at which point then @amlahash will be allowed to do what he wants. Soon it’s free for all.”
“(Graeme) Smith did recently say AB could do whatever he wants to. There must be a tipping point where players become bigger than the Nation,” Prince tweeted.
When another former cricketer Paul Harris intervened to suggest that the discussion should not be carried in social media, Prince let it rip: “@paulharris12 Didn’t hear you say that when both Biff and Faf hung Vern [Philander] out to dry in public did I? Some #proteafire they’ve got going there.”
It revealed the fault lines erupting in South Africa. It’s in this climate that cricket was seen as a vehicle of upliftment for many. And it’s here that Prince’s anger can be placed.
Even Neil Manthorp, an astute observer and journalist who has done extensive interviews with de Villiers, had said that public sympathy was turning against de Villiers during his prolonged Test absence.
Luckily, for us and some of them, de Villiers did return to Test cricket. And this year in particular, it seemed his psyche was in sync when playing for the Rainbow Nation against India and Australia.
And then this retirement all of a sudden. One of his cricketing mates even asked him on Wednesday afternoon why de Villiers hadn’t gone along with Morkel. Why after IPL? Why not play a farewell series at least back home? He was told that it would be a selfish decision, and it would be all about de Villiers. That he had had made this decision earlier but couldn’t announce it.
Back then, when public sympathy was turning against him, de Villiers gave an interview where he bared his heart. “When I tried to get away a bit, people started labelling me. It was difficult. I hate getting bad press — no one enjoys it. I’ve always enjoyed getting constructive criticism but to have people saying ‘you are turning your back on your country and your team’, that was difficult for me to take, especially after giving everything for 12 years. It was tough. I don’t think I ever did anything to be held responsible for the state of Test cricket. I knew something needed to change and I needed to do something about the way I was feeling,” he told Wisden Cricket Monthly. “I couldn’t keep going like I was going, and I wanted to feel what it was like to be a normal, family guy, which is certainly not the case when you play for 13 consecutive years for the Proteas and also IPL and other tours.”
Not many can question his team spirit. Here is a batsman who found out in 2008 that it was his defensive technique that was holding him back — he was seen as a lbw candidate, and tightened up his defence. He knew no one could stop him from scoring but if he got his defence right, he could amp it up. And he has. No one can question his commitment to the team’s cause in match situations — he has played comatose knocks like he did in Delhi in 2015 or in Adelaide in 2008 when he ate up 220 balls for 33 runs to draw a Test. You speak to the likes of Dean Elgar, South Africa’s opener, to understand how de Villiers is seen as a team man. Speak to any of the RCB players, and you would find it difficult to not indulge in myth-making. Such has been his impact as a team man.
It’s apt here to quote Manthorp’s tweet after that decision, which would perhaps be how many of de Villiers’ fans would also see it. “I was literally struggling for breath when I heard. I’m still processing, but I really do understand. Thank you @ABdeVilliers17 – thank you for every run, catch, stumping – and even those two wickets. And every smile.”
But this retirement will still rankle quite a few South Africans. It would be easier for outsiders to dwell on the joy de Villiers has provided, easier still to even talk about his legacy which in many ways would probably come closest to what was articulated by Brian Lara about his own career. Lara had famously asked the most rhetorical question by a famous batsman in the history of the game: “Did I entertain?” Lara knew what the answer would be, and one can safely say so does de Villiers. In the here and now, in South Africa, there might be disappointment, if not consternation, that that question about legacy couldn’t wait till the end of the 2019 World Cup. But when the dust settles, Lara’s rhetorical question can also be used for de Villiers, even though it’s against his character.
20k — has scored 20,014 international runs (8765 in Tests, 9577 in ODIs and 1672 in T20Is). Only Sangakkara, with 21,437, has scored more since AB’s debut (2004).
78 — AB de Villiers holds the record for the most consecutive innings in Test cricket without scoring a duck (between Dec 2004 and Nov 2008)