His announcement on Wednesday left an expression of ‘WTF’ on the face of South Africans who have become accustomed to De Villiers’ indecision on his future. In a world driven by social media, his fluctuations over international commitments have become like status updates.
On a break.
Travelling to Bangalore.
And yet, more than any other player before him, De Villiers’ requests to manage his body and his schedule were acquiesced, because everyone understood what the 2019 World Cup meant to him. Everyone who follows South African cricket remembers the morning of 24 March, 2015. They remember the raw pain of a team, and they remember the deep mourning that De Villiers and his team went through.
That is why his dream deferred to 2019 was collectively understood, his change of circumstances indulged. First came the sabbatical – which some closer to the action maintain could have just as easily been a retirement. That Cricket South Africa went along with the break was testimony to his high standing. It was a dangerous precedent to set, but the public allowed the indulgence because it was AB de Villiers.
His sabbatical was followed by a retraction, before he returned for the iconic summer that has just passed. De Villiers, as if providing a sharp reminder of his freakish abilities, touched the very peaks which confirmed that his batting can live in that rarefied space, where bowlers are just vending machines for his delight. He was head and shoulders above anyone else, even in a season bossed by the bowlers.
That has always been his greatest gift; the ability to make the difficult look easy. His outrageous highlights in the Indian Premier League every year confirm that. He is a freak of nature; half man, half sorcerer. He has treated bowlers of international pedigree with disdain, thrashing and thrilling them away as if he was in the back garden with his young son.
That genius, however, has been tempered with an inability to play a straight bat about his international future. How were we to know that the summer of 2017/18 was to be his swansong? Have we ever really known De Villiers’ next move, ever since that night in Auckland, in 2015?
In many ways, the cricketing De Villiers of the last few years has shown a striking resemblance to the footballing Lionel Messi. Like De Villiers at Bangalore, the Messi of Barcelona is as close to a living god in the city that he plays for. Their replica jerseys litter every household, their adulation crossing every financial or social boundary.
Messi, Messi, Messi!
AB, AB, AB!
Go to the Nou Camp on match day, and then head to the M. Chinnaswamy Stadium to compare. The frenzy around both idols is just as manic.
Tellingly, they have both come short of unfurling their full genius upon tournaments for their country; never quite able to transform domestic delight into international ecstasy. That torment has driven both to tears. Messi even walked away from international football for a while, so real and raw was the despair.
It was like De Villiers in 2015. Only, Messi has had a change of heart. He will go one more time in Russia. That is what De Villiers had seemingly resolved to do in 2019, too. He reaffirmed that just months ago, after his peerless summer for the Proteas. He said he was feeling better than ever. Quite what has changed since then is hard to understand.
They say that genius is often misunderstood, and De Villiers has provided plenty of confusion over the last two years. Will he, won’t he? As it turns out, AB de Villiers won’t be there next year. There is terrific sadness in that, but there is finality there, too.
It is done, and his parting shot was as unexpected as most of the dashing shots that he has splashed across his cricketing canvas.