News, conveniently but so inappropriately, was leaked that De Villiers had made himself available for the Cricket World Cup on the eve of the squad announcement. He did so in a telephone call with captain (and friend) Faf du Plessis. The latter, to his credit, said he doubted it was an option as the squad had been selected but that he would relay the message to the coach, manager and selection chief. They weren’t interested. Again, rightly so.
De Villiers’s pedigree as a player is not ever to be questioned. He is one of the great batsmen of his generation in all forms of cricket and one of the finest to play white-ball cricket. He could play. He can still play, despite being 35 years old. His recent Indian Premier League returns are confirmation he would still have been an asset to the Proteas at the World Cup, had he been part of the squad in the year build-up.
De Villiers retired from international cricket in 2018. It was an announcement, made by De Villiers on social media, that stunned cricket authorities and especially the Proteas convener of selectors, Linda Zondi. He confirmed that he had pleaded with De Villiers not to retire. He had reiterated the value of De Villiers being at the World Cup.
The player had no more hunger to represent his country. He had “run out of gas” his words.
It all should have ended with the retirement announcement. There should never have been a call to his mate Faf on the day of the squad announcement. How on earth could the team leadership have justified his inclusion?
Some have argued that if you have a player of De Villiers’s genius available, then you pick him. It isn’t that simple, not in the context of team sports and the collective dynamic. De Villiers’s last season of international cricket had already divided opinion within the squad.
His teammates always gave him the respect earned over a decade of run-scoring and athleticism in the field. But the respect did not mask their unhappiness that De Villiers picked when he wanted to represent his country.
The public, even back then, were angry with De Villiers because they felt it was a privilege to be picked for one’s country and not a player’s choice.
The Proteas' horror World Cup campaign, three defeats and a no result in four starts, made it easy for the pro-De Villiers lobbyists to leak news of his availability.
It was an orchestrated attack on the Proteas leadership, who had said no. It was in bad taste but whoever leaked the story had underestimated the resentment there was towards the manner in which De Villiers left a year ago. There was very little sympathy for De Villiers on social media.
There was a heck of a lot of perspective and that isn’t always something associated with South African sporting fans. Leading cricket writers in South Africa were also unanimous in their condemnation of De Villiers’s belated offer to go to the World Cup. And rightly so.
De Villiers being at the World Cup would have been no guarantee that South Africa’s log position would be any different after four matches. De Villiers, for all his stunning international performances over the past 15 years, has seldom been the saviour in World Cup play-off matches.
His 65 not out against New Zealand in the 2015 semi-final is the exception. In the 2007 semi-final he scored just one against Australia and in the 2011 quarter-final he made just two against New Zealand. He didn’t score against England in the 2013 Champions Trophy semi-final and his scores in the 2009 and 2014 World T20 semi-finals were 1 and 10 respectively.
Keohane is an award-winning sports journalist and the head of sport at Independent Media