AB de Villiers, Demigod or Demon?
As the hero looks elsewhere, his team sinks
Revelations about AB de Villiers’ last minute antics the day before team selection ensured that South Africa’s ICC Cricket World Cup experience remains eventful, even off the field.
As if South Africa’s six wicket defeat to India at the Rose Bowl in Southampton weren’t enough, here was a brewing conversation that refused to go away. Myopic fans screamed for the late, exceptional, eleventh hour inclusion of versatile batsman and former captain AB de Villiers – but not much time was lost between the revelation that de Villiers had had a change of heart, and anger over his presumption in assuming he would receive a red carpet welcome.
Almost proving the point about speculation that de Villiers picks his tours.
But what was gut wrenching, was not the fact that Cricket South Africa refused to accede to the talented batsman’s last minute wishes, but rather that de Villiers in his desperation would have the audacity to assume he could walk back into the team, almost exactly a year to the day that he chose the backdrop of the faraway Indian Premier League to announce that he would be retiring from international cricket with immediate effect, that too just a day before team selection.
The timing, the choice of venue and the player’s announcement that he was “exhausted”, coming in the backdrop of growing resentment over de Villiers’ uncertain presence in the team, only fuelled the turmoil back home.
The churning had begun. South Africa had to find a new hero to take them into another devilish edition of the World Cup as far as they were concerned. That de Villiers had dealt South Africa their first blow in their World Cup preparations became obvious not shortly thereafter.
There was a palpable sense of anger and betrayal when just months before the ongoing World Cup, Duanne Olivier, South Africa’s fast bowler on a rise, revealed that he had signed a Kolpak deal which would effectively rule him out of representing South Africa in the near future. With even more of a sting, came a hint that Olivier might be playing for England by the next World Cup.
The drop from the pedestal and public memory then came fast, for a player who had been brought back into national contention in a second wind to his cricket career. Suddenly, Olivier became a dominant topic of worry over the turnover of South Africa’s cricketers, who were in great haste to sign up for the certainty of a Kolpak deal – not to mention, assured monetary compensation three times that of South Africa’s national contract – before Brexit began to hit.
South Africa’s attempts to shatter the myth about their inability to rise to the challenge of World Cups and knockout tournaments are hard to spot, given the insipid, uninspired manner in which they have taken to the field in match after match.
And injuries to their key players only made matters worse. Hashim Amla left the field with a bruise to his head in the very first match. Dale Steyn courted controversy after the shoulder injury he sustained playing the IPL as a replacement player failed to heal, ruling him out of the World Cup altogether. The promising fast bowler Lungi Ngidi, injury prone himself, didn’t get a chance to settles scores.
Desperate fans wanted South Africa to make late changes to the team. They wanted the selectors to call for reinforcements, in the form of a batsman who chose to spend the major part of the year prior playing the Twenty20 circus roulette around the world, rather than showing up for key series against Pakistan and Sri Lanka at home – this despite advice and encouragement as confirmed by Linda Zondi, the convenor of Cricket South Africa’s national selection panel.
Zondi spoke of the angst around de Villiers’ retirement announcement, and the management’s attempts to bring the batsman back into the fold. “I pleaded with AB de Villiers not to retire in 2018. Although there was a perception that he was picking and choosing when to play – which was not true – I did give him the option to plan and monitor his season to get him to the World Cup fresh and in a good space.
“We made it clear that he would have to play during the home tours against Sri Lanka and Pakistan to be considered for selection, instead he signed to play in the Pakistan and Bangladesh Premier Leagues respectively.
“He turned down the offer and said he was at peace with his decision to retire.”
Zondi revealed that de Villiers had sent an SOS through Faf du Plessis, the current South African captain and his childhood friend, and Ottis Gibson, the coach, on the eve of the South African team selection on April 18, about his intent to play for South Africa at the World Cup in England.
She expressed shock that the team management would even consider the proposition. “For Faf du Plessis and Ottis Gibson to share AB’s desire to be included in the squad on the day we announced our World Cup squad on April 18th was a shock to all of us. AB left a big vacuum when he retired, we had a year to find players at franchise level to fill the gap,” Zondi told the press.
Did de Villiers hope to gather empathy or hero points for making himself available? If so he was also his own villain, ignoring selectors’ requests for a year to make the team selection.
It was hard to refute the logic of the National Selection Convenor when she spoke to the heart of the matter. “We had players who put in the hard work, who put up their hands and deserved to be given the opportunity to go to the World Cup. The decision was based on principle: we had to be fair to the team, the selection panel, our franchise system and players.”
She added, “AB is undoubtedly one of the best players in the world, but above all else, we have to stay true to our morals and principles, there is no regret in the decision.”
Zondi had hit the nail on the head. There is a growing, dangerous trend where players, particularly established and illustrious players, erroneously get carried away by their success to think they can call the shots. How in the world de Villiers expected the selectors to accede to this sudden change of heart is unfathomable.
For those familiar with AB de Villiers’ career of twists and turns, this was just another de Villiers moment. Angst over being overlooked in favour of Hashim Amla for the captaincy had de Villiers feigning sudden disinterest and motivation in representing South Africa. When Amla stepped down amidst personal versus team conundrums, de Villiers embraced the captaincy, only to become a reluctant player who would show up but not stay very long, and to eventually give up the captaincy altogether.
Why should the past year have been any different?
Uncertainty over de Villiers’ availability the past few years had to bubble over at some point. And so it did, overshadowing his growing ability as a versatile batsman who can take the bull by the horns in Test cricket as much as Twenty20.
But overlooked in the desperation was the fact that de Villiers was already part of three of South Africa’s World Cup campaigns – once in 2015 as captain – only for the team to return home empty handed every single time. Why would things be different this time?
As the revelations’ flames turned into forest fires, de Villiers chose the route of his social media account to post this message, after South Africa had lost their third match in rather comprehensive fashion:
“All that’s important is that we should all focus on supporting the team at the World Cup. There is a long way to go and I believe the boys can still go all the way.”
Why this and why now? It could be asked of the message – and it could be asked of the mess that is of AB de Villiers’ own making, as he drags South Africa off into the abyss beside him. Once again, the timing could not be worse, and South Africa find themselves flatfooted at the ICC Cricket World Cup.
In the backdrop of the quota system, at a time when players of the calibre of Kevin Pietersen have had to turn to foreign shores to find their feet in international cricket, de Villiers spurned a golden goose, not once, but once too many times.
For a batsman of such acumen, the agonising AB de Villiers saga is a timely reminder to separate the cricketer from the man. The two beasts aren’t always one and the same.