He was engaging in New Zealand, and his usual, charming self in the circus that is the Indian Premier League. The chants of “ABD” followed him around like a personal, praise-singing choir, growing louder with each stroke.
Even in an incredibly mediocre campaign for the Royal Challengers Bangalore, De Villiers still managed to carve out a few cameos, glimpses that the magic that has attracted millions of admirers is not gone just yet.
At the time of his revelation of a reduced playing schedule, there were equal parts disappointment and dismay in South Africa. How could the country’s ultimate player of this generation be turning his back on the ultimate format?
And yet, once they recovered from the shock, the Proteas’ Test squad has gone about their merry way, and even learnt to live without the increasingly fragile Dale Steyn.
In the past few months, as South Africa’s one-day outfit again outlined their obligatory role as contenders for the latest International Cricket Council (ICC) trophy on offer, De Villiers has done a lot of guiding, as a senior pro in the autumn of his career does in the dressing room.
He has put an arm around youngsters like Andile Phehlukwayo, and helped them navigate their way home in a tight chase. He has chucked the ball at upstarts, and backed them to hold their nerve and administer the necessary dose at the death of an innings.
De Villiers, well away from the treadmill of extended periods away from home on national duty, has played with a smile on his face, clearly revelling in being able to compartmentalise his commitment to the cause.
And yet, even with the convenience that comes with his new arrangement, there is just one thing that will make it all worth it, for him and for those with an interest in the national cricket side.
Over the next two years, De Villiers has his final chances to lift a trophy with South Africa.
At 33, he will not see a World Cup beyond 2019. Thus, July 15, 2019, looms large on his bucket-list. He would give a lot to be at Lord’s on that day, basking in the glory of a World Cup final triumph that ensures he finishes off a stellar career in style.
He is not alone, either.
Increasingly, it has become clear that Hashim Amla, Vernon Philander, JP Duminy, Faf du Plessis and Steyn – should he get there – can’t plan for 2023. It is a bridge too far. Common sense would tell you to put Imran Tahir on that list, but the Pakistan-born sorcerer has spent the past six years making up for lost time.
All he does is bowl – and very well, mind you – and he may want to play until his legs can no longer carry him around the field in delirious celebration. Accordingly, the world’s best limited-overs bowler works to his own schedule, and his exploits in white-ball cricket have earned him that right.
But, what of the golden generation whose lights are starting to flicker towards retirement and the next chapter of their lives? That band is led by De Villiers, whose own torch has lit up the world more often than any other South African – but not in a major tournament.
Sure, there were glimmers in 2015, when he tore into the West Indies in the group stages, but the argument is out there that De Villiers’ true greatness has never graced the biggest stages, where his nation’s interest in a competition live or die by his swishing blade.
The leading lights of the modern game have always found a way to be truly inspired by the greatest stage, and that remains the one, glaring omission from the considerable list of De Villiers’ achievements.
Ricky Ponting has a World Cup final named after him, after he tore into India in 2003, to ensure Australia defended their crown.
In 2011, in a frenzied atmosphere, MS Dhoni held his head and nerve to take India to the promised land, and seal his own place in cricket immortality.
Virat Kohli will be just as determined to sign off with a final in his own image from the game, and he remains the greatest individual chaser the game currently possesses.
Targets don’t frighten him, but rather seem to inspire him, daring him to show how deep his well of character and temperament goes.
De Villiers is spoken of in the same breath as these men when it comes to ability, but he is yet to do what they have managed to do under the same pressure.
Now, ahead of him, lie two final opportunities to do just that. The Champions Trophy final, on June 18, will not be at Lord’s, but The Oval is in the same city, and the stakes will be pretty stiff, too.
It is the perfect dress rehearsal to the 2019 World Cup, and it will not just be South Africans who will be interested to see how the Proteas handle the business end of matches next month.
It has always been assumed that South Africa tighten up at the sharp end of tournaments, and play their best cricket in the round-robin stages, when it is not all on the line – when there is still a chance to start again tomorrow.
As De Villiers – and the rest of his golden generation – look ahead to the next two years of their career, they will know they are running out of tomorrows. They will know that the fire that used to flicker so brightly at the start of their international career, is now slowly diminishing.
Ahead of them are final chances to rekindle those flames, and ensure they deliver on the eternal promise their collective skills have offered.
There is immediacy in these matters, because tomorrow – once so far away – is no longer promised.