Run machine AB de Villiers bats against Australia at Newlands in Cape Town earlier this year. Photo: Gavin Barker / BackpagePix
If you are a white, fair-haired male of reasonable build and happen to be strolling around in India when the Proteas are in town, chances are that a dozen locals might stop you to request a “selfie” before you make it back to your hotel.

I have seen this phenomenon more than once, and it never lacks for enthusiasm or humour.

“You are ABD, sir!,” the request will start. “No, I’m not really,” comes the awkward response. “You are looking like him, sir.” “No, really. I am just a journalist,” comes the polite reiteration. “Okay, Okay. But first, I must take a selfie. Just in case!”

Before the next rebuttal comes, the selfie is snapped.

In India, it is easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission, the locals maintain. That, in a bizarre nutshell, is the AB de Villiers-effect across India. Over there, he lives in a precious bubble, a patch of unreal estate occupied by a micro-fraction of the population.

ABD. India’s cricketing royalty. Bollywood stars. Business tycoons. Maybe the Prime Minister. Maybe. It is in an altogether more genteel environment that this sit-down with De Villiers occurs, on the Monday after the Cricket South Africa Awards.

The setting is at the stunning Copperleaf Golf Club, and cricket’s most eligible retiree has arrived for a fitting on a new set of clubs. Whittling down a handicap that used to hover around “scratch” is one of his new challenges, now that he has a bit more time on his hands.

AB de Villiers is finally getting to enjoy his international retirement. Photo: Muzi Ntombela/BackpagePix

A few nights before, De Villiers had got a final token of appreciation from his national employers, supplemented by a standing ovation by the entire room. It was the last time he would wear his national blazer, the last time he would ever be on official Proteas’ duty.

“They asked me to do a speech, but there was no way I would have been able to compose myself. I would have looked at my team-mates, and that would have been it,” he sighs, noting that the dressing-room he has left behind houses brothers for life.

Why, then? Why leave that family, when it was so close to a potential slice of history? It is a question that many South Africans pondered, as they tried to work out his state of mind.

“It was time. It was nothing against anyone, but I just felt the time was right. I have been playing for over 14 years, and I was tired,” he starts.

There has to be more, though. Surely. Many theories surfaced about that fateful night in Auckland, in March 2015, and how that may have affected De Villiers’ state of mind.

“For a long time, the World Cup was a massive goal. But, in the last few years, I have realised that it isn’t realistic to measure yourself purely on what you achieve in that tournament. That will not be the be-all and end-all of my career,” he points out.

“Yes, I would have loved to win it, but I have great memories from World Cups. The 2007 tournament - my first - was very special. We fell short against Australia, when we tried to play too much cricket too soon, but that shift in mentality probably helped us to go over there and win the Test series we then won over there.

“Personally, I scored my first ODI century in that 2007 tournament, and I loved the whole experience of being in the Caribbean.

“The same goes for the others, in 2011 and in 2015. India has always been close to my heart, because of the passion for cricket, and then obviously 2015 was an amazing game. We fell on the wrong side of it, but we gave it everything,” he puffs.

And 2019 was also a goal, but over the past few months, his thinking slowly changed, until he accepted that missing out on that final mission wouldn’t be the end of his world. There is more to life, he notes. And, truth be told, there has been infinitely more to his career than the showpiece event.

“I guess that once I acknowledged to myself that I didn’t have to measure my career on one tournament, place so much emphasis on it, it became easier to make my decision. I also didn’t want to be picking and choosing my way through fixtures from now until then. It wouldn’t be fair,” he admits, noting that he had felt the sting of the criticism for his sabbatical.

AB de Villiers is getting to live a somewhat 'normal' life now. Photo: twitter.com/OfficialCSA

Playing for his country has always mattered to the Affies product, even when some questioned if he had fallen out of love with the Protea. His career has seen the cricketing landscape dramatically, and the demands on the modern player are not confined to just training and playing.

Life, he reflects, has evolved hugely from the time he was a 20-year-old starlet, striding out in Port Elizabeth.

The boy from Bella-Bella has grown into the blockbuster of Bangalore, feted as if he was born a stone’s throw from the M Chinnaswamy Stadium. Giant billboards of his likeness dominate the bustling metropolis, and an entire city is besotted with his unique batting style and his mannerisms.

“Bangalore is a special place, a second home, really. I played my 100th Test there, and obviously RCB is a massive part of my life. India as a country has taken me in, and it’s hard to explain what that feels like. I just play cricket,” he adds bashfully.

That cricket, he says, has given him things far beyond the dreams he had growing up and playing yard cricket with his brothers. He has become an international superstar, an innovator, and a player capable of seamlessly altering his game across formats and dominating in a way that very few ever have.

“I love all the formats, and T20 is a lot of fun. It has brought in a new audience, and it has definitely changed our lives as players financially. But the ultimate format is still Test cricket,” he maintains.

That is why he will be forever grateful that he was able to end his career on the considerable high of the summer past. His collection of knocks against India and Australia were of the highest order; scored against quality attacks, and garnered on liberal tracks.

“It was the best possible way to finish, against two great teams, in the best format of the game. There was a lot of motivation for me to do well, and for the team to do well. Series like that don’t come around too often,” he emphasised.

More than once, he took the breath away. More was the pity that South Africans didn’t know they were taking in the last few sips of the De Villiers vintage in national colours.

They said a sincere goodbye to Morné Morkel, but had no idea that De Villiers was also in the departures’ lounge.

“I was really happy for Morné, because he really deserved the ovation that he got. But, in life, we are all different. I didn’t want to have that kind of send-off, that attention. I have nothing against players who do that, but I just wouldn’t feel comfortable doing that.”

Instead, De Villiers said goodbye with his strokes, reminding all and sundry that the class still endured, right to the very end. His 126 not out in Port Elizabeth, where it all began years ago, was one for the ages, a generous helping of skill and nerve, garnished with lashings of spontaneity.

It was his final, significant act, and it broke the Aussies. That will be his legacy; the astonishing array of shots that were uniquely his, and the subsequent sense of helplessness that he furnished upon the opposition.

So, what next for the 34 year-old? “I will keep on playing IPL for a few years, and I would like to play for the Titans, and help some of the youngsters. But there are no set plans. I haven’t been able to say that for a long time.

“There are some offers on the table from around the world, but it will be nice to wake up and wonder what to do; to be normal,” he smiles.

Celebrity golf tournament invitations have started trickling in, the Big Bash has started with the sweet nothings, and it is inevitable that offers to get into the commentary booth will follow, especially around that World Cup.

For now, however, the man who spent the last 14 years in an “ABnormal” bubble is confronted by the common concerns of a stay-at-home-dad. School runs, chipping from around the green, and going off to the bush with mates while his former work colleagues are in Sri Lanka.

AB de Villiers has pressed the “normal” button, and he is enjoying every second of it. What’s more, he doesn’t even have to ask for permission - or for forgiveness.


Sunday Tribune

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