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If you like watching cricket, you cannot dislike watching de Villiers. So you want him to play every time, and you wish the superhero tag was not mere hyperbole. © Getty Images

The good news is AB de Villiers does not plan to go away anytime soon.

The bad news is, he isn’t going to play Test cricket in 2017. Possibly not after that either.

The interesting news is that he thinks that ‘managing workloads’ is “nonsense”.

The startling news is that the most gifted batsman of his generation says he doesn’t really practice the outrageous shots he plays – they’re practiced and executed at once out in the middle.

Being AB de Villiers might seem like the easiest thing in the world when he casually alters the space-time continuum around him with the flick of a wrist. At other times, when you are sitting on more than 8000 Test runs, already acknowledged as one of the greats of the game, you might have to step away from the format you acknowledge is the ultimate test of any cricketer – because the body won’t hold up.

“For me to stay on the park and stay healthy until 2019, I decided that what’s hardest on my body is Test cricket. It’s five days of cricket and three days of prep for every Test match. In T20s and ODIs you can play a lot more games and it’s not as hard on your body because you get rest between every single match. For me to get to the 2019 World Cup, I felt that I just needed to get away from that format a little bit.”

In other words, sorry to break it to you, but de Villiers is not, in fact, Superman. Yes, we know he came darned close to looking it. Yes, we know he seemed not of this planet. And yes, we know – really we do – that the concept that there can be ‘too much’ cricket for him to handle is like someone saying they’ve had too much chocolate and can you please put that Chocolatier box aside. If you like watching cricket, you cannot dislike watching de Villiers. So you want him to play every time, and you wish the superhero tag was not mere hyperbole.

But, sorry to break it to you again, de Villiers is human and he feels his 33 years at times. And when he said he was stepping away from Test cricket this year, it was not a decision made off the cuff. “It’s been coming for a few years now, where I’ve felt that I had quite a few reasons where I need to manage my cricket a bit,” he says. “Firstly, my goal is the 2019 World Cup. We haven’t won a trophy like that in an ICC event before and looking at my age – I’m 33 now and probably not going to play for another ten years – so my chances of winning a World Cup are becoming less and less. And there are a few things that stand in my way to get to that World Cup. It’s physical fitness, mental freshness, time with the family, time at home, things like that.

“For me to stay on the park and stay healthy until 2019, I decided that what’s hardest on my body is Test cricket. It’s five days of cricket and three days of prep for every Test match. In T20s and ODIs you can play a lot more games and it’s not as hard on your body because you get rest between every single match. For me to get to the 2019 World Cup, I felt that I just needed to get away from that format a little bit.”

In fact, in his app AB17 that was launched recently, de Villiers revealed in a video that he thought of retiring from Tests altogether, but then decided that he would take a year’s break and see how things went from there. Prod him on whether it meant anything to him to possibly not play a Test again when he could be so close to getting 10,000 Test runs, once considered the Mt Everest of batting landmarks, and the reply is swift. “I mean no disrespect to anyone who has ever achieved that – but it means absolutely zero to me to achieve 10,000 runs. I don’t care about that at all.”

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“I’ve played for quite a few years, played some amazing innings and we have had some great wins. Unfortunately we haven’t won a tournament yet.” © Getty Images

What he does care about is winning a major trophy for South Africa. There will be a chance coming up in June this year at the Champions Trophy in England. “I’ve played for quite a few years, played some amazing innings and we have had some great wins. Unfortunately we haven’t won a tournament yet, but we get another chance in 2017,” he acknowledges. “I truly believe that we’re not far away. I feel our team spirit and our culture is exceptionally strong, which is the kind of thing you need when you carry a tag like that. I truly believe that’s going to carry us all the way.”

The ‘tag like that’ de Villiers is referring to is the albatross that every South African team carries into major ICC tournaments – chokers; being among the favourites but never winning. It’s probably not helped by memories of the 2015 World Cup that ended in heartbreak. One of the subplots before that loss was the spectre of quota selections in South African cricket, with Vernon Philander coming in for Kyle Abbott. In his autobiography, de Villiers doesn’t hide the unsettling effect this had on the team. But that is a reality of South African cricket and for now, de Villiers says it’s one they have dealt with in the best possible manner – by talking honestly about it and keeping the ‘circle of trust’ confined to the squad.

Every single time I’ve had an injury I’ve come back stronger. I’ve found inspiration through a lot of athletes who have done that in the past. I think of (Rafael) Nadal, the tennis player. The way he’s come back has inspired me a lot. He’d been out for quite a long time as well. But that’s part of the game, you come and you go. I’m still motivated to play for as long as possible, and as long as that motivation is there mentally, nothing is going to stop me.”

“It is part of our country. It’s something that in a way is out of the team’s control,” reflects de Villiers. “We have addressed that issue in our last culture camp that we had. We had a full on honesty session where everyone just put all their issues on the table, and that’s one of the things that came up. And we’ve accepted it as a cricket team and I still believe that we are, if not the best then one of the best teams in the world.”

Clearly a large part of being the best team in the world has to do with de Villiers being in the XI. He’s got more than 9000 runs in ODIs at 54.28 at better than a run-a-ball. Only Virat Kohli at his finest might possibly rival de Villiers in mastering the 50-over format. Kohli is skill allied to will, while de Villiers seems to float above it all, inhabiting a different plane.

Of late, though, as one of the factors that led to his stepping back from Tests, de Villiers has had to deal with the rare discomfort of injury-enforced time on the sidelines. “I haven’t had a lot of injuries. But every single time I’ve had an injury I’ve come back stronger,” he shares. “I’ve found inspiration through a lot of athletes who have done that in the past. I think of (Rafael) Nadal, the tennis player. The way he’s come back has inspired me a lot. He’d been out for quite a long time as well. But that’s part of the game, you come and you go. I’m still motivated to play for as long as possible, and as long as that motivation is there mentally, nothing is going to stop me.”

Rafa? Really? You would have thought he’d think of Roger Federer, being the closest cricketing equivalent to the Swiss tennis maestro. Oh well.

“I think I’ve been blessed being light on my feet,” he says. (‘Light on his feet’, just like Federer, we say.) “I’m still agile and athletic. Injuries are part of the game. I’ve always struggled with my back since I was about 16 years old, so it’s something that’s not going to go away. But I work hard at it, to manage it. It’s not now that I’m in my 30s I get all these injuries. But it is one of the main reasons why I wanted to play less Test cricket. I don’t like the words ‘managing workloads’. I think it’s nonsense. I know my body and I know my mind. As long as I’m fresh I’ll play, for as long as possible. I know when I need a break as well.”

© Wisden India

“I’m still agile and athletic. Injuries are part of the game. I’ve always struggled with my back since I was about 16 years old, so it’s something that’s not going to go away. But I work hard at it, to manage it.” – De Villiers at the launch of his app in Bangalore. © Wisden India

One of the things de Villiers knows he will not do again is keep wickets. “Definitely not. I’ll miss the next five years if I start ‘keeping again. My back won’t allow that. My back is sore because of all those years of ‘keeping.”

The other thing de Villiers won’t do – or doesn’t do – is spend time in the nets practicing those lap-sweeps to fast bowlers that land in the sixth tier. “If you’re an international cricketer and you play IPL as well, you honestly have no time at all to work on skills away from the game,” is his explanation. “Now that I’ve stepped down from Test cricket for a while, I’ve had a bit of time in the nets to just showcase my skills, work on that, which is great. But it’s something I’ve developed over the years, on the park. I’ve had no downtime to go and work on things like that. I was forced to work on it on the park. I don’t like to practise it in any way. I feel it’s something that comes out naturally.

“It’s difficult to explain,” he continues when pushed to break down how his genius works. “I try and read the situation, what the bowler’s trying to do. I look at the captain, at the body language and what they’re trying to achieve, the fields they’re setting. I can sense when they’re panicking a bit. I can sense when they’re bowling well and they’re competitive. So I adapt myself to certain situations and I try not to miss out on great opportunities where I can take the bowling unit down.

“I enjoyed coming to India from the first time, when I was 19 years old. I could not have asked for a better reception and better place (than Bangalore) to play my 100th Test. I always hold this place close to my heart. It will be great to come back here for another ten years for the IPL – that is a little bit out of the question! – but hopefully as long as possible.”

“I don’t practise the silly, funny lap shots and things like that. There’s a time and a place for those shots. So I’ll wait for it. When I sense it’s the right time, I’ll play it. It’s not something I can force.”

He may well say it’s not something he can force, but bowlers the world over will probably not commiserate. It is for this very ability of his, though, playing the ‘silly’ shots and making them look out of the world, that de Villiers is one of the few cricketers to have transcended national boundaries. When South Africa came for their tour of India in 2015-16, he received standing ovations each time he walked out to bat.

In Bangalore, his ‘adopted’ home and the venue of his 100th Test, the pandemonium was of the level that Sachin Tendulkar once caused and Kohli now draws.

“It takes my breath away completely,” says the man who has mastered taking others’ breaths away. “I enjoyed coming to India from the first time, when I was 19 years old. I could not have asked for a better reception and better place (than Bangalore) to play my 100th Test. I always hold this place close to my heart. It will be great to come back here for another ten years for the IPL – that is a little bit out of the question! – but hopefully as long as possible.

“It’s crazy. I don’t know. I scored a hundred in a one-day game in Kanpur once, and I couldn’t hear my celebrations. That was how the crowd was – that was crazy. It is a huge privilege and honour to see that happening and come back to India every time and knowing I have got a lot of fans. Hopefully I keep entertaining them and giving them back as much as possible.”

Now, if he could just ring in 2018 with the news that he’ll be on the park in whites too, there will be more chances for more people, to make a lot more din.

AB de Villiers was speaking to a small group of journalists at a promotional event for his app AB 17, developed by FanHero.