AB de Villiers is loved, admired, revered and respected the world over. Wherever he goes, he is the object of much interest and attention, his unique blend of the orthodox and the unthinkable making for an arresting, scarcely believable concoction. The effortlessness to his strokeplay is only matched by audacity of thought and brilliance in execution. How many other batsmen, for instance, have gone down on one knee and swept – that’s correct, swept – the fastest of bowlers as if against little kids delivering friendly servings with a harmless table-tennis ball?
De Villiers is a simple man, not given to fuss or histrionics. There is nothing to suggest that there is a prima donna lurking behind that smiling, pleasant visage. Indeed, if you were to take the bat out of his hand – or, cricket out him, actually – you could even classify him as boring. Charming and well-mannered, of course, but still.
There is no gainsaying what peaks of popularity de Villiers would have scaled had he been Indian. He is an honorary Bangalorean, of course, having wowed the city with his incandescent batsmanship and his down-to-earth, everyday behaviour. At venues across India, be it in the red and black of Royal Challengers Bangalore or in South African hues, he is welcomed to the batting crease with almost the enthusiasm and sense of anticipation as Sachin Tendulkar once used to be, and Virat Kohli is these days. Chris Gayle might be the Universe Boss, but ABD is the Universal Hero, riding the groundswell of popular support from all quarters, wearing his greatness lightly but with great respect and pride.
For all that, though, de Villiers now finds himself somewhat at the crossroads, professionally. He is still only 33, but he has already played 404 international games since his South African debut 12 and a bit years back. In the recent past, he has been bothered by a troublesome elbow that took a lot longer to heal than initially expected. He is also the head of a very young family, which as much as anything else has forced him to juggle his schedules as he gets his priorities in order.
Currently, de Villiers does not play Test cricket. The last of his 106 appearances in that format came more than 17 months back, against England in January 2016. Since then, with elbow hassles and family commitments, his appearances have been limited to white-ball cricket, both for South Africa and in franchise play. He has made it clear that his final destination is the 2019 World Cup, and that he will do everything in his control to ensure that he is at the peak of his powers going into that tournament where, again, South Africa will attempt to exorcise the ghosts of past campaigns gone horribly wrong in ICC events.
By then, de Villiers will have turned 35. And even given that it will be an actual and not merely official 35, that will automatically mean his best days are behind rather than ahead of him. No matter. De Villiers may not even be thinking beyond the World Cup. That’s another issue altogether.
In a somewhat strange yet perfectly functional conundrum, de Villiers is the captain of the South African 50-over side while Faf du Plessis is the skipper of the Test and Twenty20 International teams. It is an almost unprecedented situation. Countries have had different skippers for each of the three formats, some have had the same skipper for all three formats, others have split the red-ball and white-ball captaincy. Only South Africa find themselves in the unique position of having the same man leading the Test and T20I teams, and a different individual at the helm of the 50-over side that also includes the Test and T20I captain.
Never mind. It’s their call to make.
It is the calls that have come in the last three days from outside of the decision-makers that are in focus. Earlier in the week, Graeme Smith, de Villiers’s first international captain, exhorted Superman to give up the ODI captaincy so that he could focus on prolonging his career. It was a thought echoed on Thursday (June 29) by Barry Richards, the legendary South African batsman whose international career was restricted to four extremely fruitful Tests by political developments. The experienced Smith and the revered Richards clearly know what they are talking about, and Smith particularly so given how close he and de Villiers are. Perhaps this is advice AB will consider; perhaps he won’t, too. Time will tell.
But these very public remarks by Smith – in his newspaper column – and by Richards in a press conference immediately transported the mind back a dozen years, when a similar suggestion by an equally respected cricket brain sent Indian cricket into an extraordinary tailspin.
When Greg Chappell was appointed India’s coach in mid-2005 as John Wright’s successor, there was barely concealed excitement within the Indian cricketing fraternity. Guru Greg arrived armed with wisdom and almost unparalleled cricketing knowledge; the team couldn’t wait to pick his brain, to feed off his experience and expertise, to work alongside one of the most astute cricketers to have graced the sport.
Things didn’t go according to plan, even if that is an understatement. Almost from the off, when Chappell suggested that Sourav Ganguly give up the captaincy to focus on his batting because the Australian believed that a) The cares of captaincy were beginning to affect Ganguly’s batting, and that, more crucially, b) Ganguly the batsman still had plenty of runs left in him at the top level.
The suggestion/advice/exhortation didn’t go down well with Ganguly, triggering a public showdown between the coach and the captain. Ganguly eventually didn’t go so much as he was pushed out. He was summoned occasionally, left out almost as summarily, and it wasn’t until South Africa in late 2006 that he re-established himself as a permanent member of the Test squad.
Between that tour and the end of his career in Nagpur in November 2008, almost every international run Ganguly made was a vindication of Chappell’s stance, one might argue. In those last 25 Tests, Ganguly amassed 1991 runs at 46.30; there were four hundreds and a Test-best 239, against Pakistan in Bangalore. Overall, Ganguly averaged 42.17 in his 113-Test career; the numbers alone suggest a victory for Chappell, though it is debatable if either Chappell or Ganguly sees it that way.
And just speaking of Ganguly, I just hope he doesn’t one day stumble into the wrong meeting. Or get his dates mixed up. The president of the Cricket Association of Bengal is also a member of the Cricket Advisory Committee. And of the governing council of the Indian Premier League. Apart from being the president of the BCCI’s technical committee. He is soon to travel to England for the MCC World Cricket Committee meeting at Lord’s but before that, there is the small matter of a meeting of the Special Committee recently constituted to deliberate on key issues relating to the implementation of the Lodha panel recommendations ratified by the supreme court. I am fairly sure I have missed out at least a couple of other responsibilities. But then again, so long as Sourav remembers, that’s all that matters, right?