It was back in 2016, when he was named captain of the South African Test team – a dream he’d been chasing for many years – that AB de Villiers first spoke publicly about needing to play less.
South Africa were in the middle of a Test series against England -1-0 – and Hashim Amla had resigned as captain after the second Test in Cape Town. De Villiers got the job, fulfilling a role he felt should have been his when Amla had been given it 18 months earlier.
However on the eve of that crucial third Test at the Wanderers, in between expressing pride at finally getting the captaincy and outlining the kind of cricket he wanted the Proteas to play, De Villiers also explained how he had been battling to find relevance in playing international cricket. “In the last couple of years I found myself on the pitch...not enjoying myself as much as I should be,” he said.
A year later he took that controversial sabbatical from the international game. Upon his return he said he felt fresher and more motivated and subsequently he produced performances of supreme quality. None more so than his unbeaten 126 against Australia in the second Test in Port Elizabeth in March, an innings of great technical quality and AB-style chutzpah, that you could imagine him playing for a good few years yet.
And he will keep playing, just not at international level and that is a very grave concern for the powers that be of the sport.
That century against the Aussies – arguably one of the finest ever knocks by an SA batsman - was played in front of barely 5000 spectators at St Georges Park, on a Saturday and a Sunday, when people supposedly have leisure time. Never mind just De Villiers’ innings, that was a cracking Test, the build up of which had plenty of drama. It should have been a great attraction for sports lovers - and it wasn’t.
And if you’re AB, and you have played in front of raucous and colourful audiences who adore you in India, then where’s the stimulation from playing in front a paltry crowd like the one in PE?
Test cricket, Brendon McCullum, a close friend of De Villiers and recently a team-mate of his at the Royal Challengers Bangalore, noted recently, is dying. “I firmly believe Test cricket won’t be around in time, because there’s only so many teams that can afford to play it,” McCullum told on-line magazine Cricket Monthly.
“I’m also a realist that people are turning up and watching T20 not just at games but also on TV – society’s changing, isn’t it? People don’t have four or five days to commit to Test cricket. Long long-term, I see a T20 franchise as owning players, and I don’t see them releasing those players to play for their nation in a Test match.”
De Villiers said in that video in which he announced his retirement that it wouldn’t be right for him to “pick where and when and in what format,” he plays for the national side. And looking at the schedule over the next year leading up to the World Cup, De Villiers could argue that there really is nothing on the schedule that stimulates him.
Sri Lanka away? A three-match ODI tour to Australia? Pakistan and Sri Lanka at home? There’s nothing really sexy in any of that. Such though is the nature of team sport that to give AB the options of when to play would open up a can of worms. What’s to stop Kagiso Rabada and Lungi Ngidi, young bowlers whose craft exacts an enormous physical toll from choosing when they wish to play?
It may be a decision that gets taken out of Cricket SA and the ICC’s hands as McCullum stated with T20 franchises owning the players and then releasing them when they deem fit. That’s a bit like club football. That sport, the largest in the world, has a very limited set of international windows, but then those international matches are extremely stimulating as will be the case next month in Russia.
De Villiers’ international retirement certainly is a terrible outcome for the Proteas, and a massive blow to their World Cup chances in a year’s time. But it was coming, he’d warned everyone two years ago.
The ICC and its affiliates like Cricket SA have a lot more thinking to do if it doesn’t want De Villiers’ decision to become a trend.