South Africa missed AB de Villiers in the recently concluded Test series against England. There are no two ways about it. It had to be, when the player in question is one of the calibre and stature of de Villiers. It had to be when the player in question is among your top-two batsmen. It had to be when you come home empty-handed and annihilated from a high-profile series.
To make things worse there was a statement by South African Test skipper Faf du Plessis that de Villiers, who had taken a sabbatical from Test cricket had "earned the right to do whatever he wants to" regarding his playing future. "He's played 100 Test matches, 12 years of cricket away from home, he's done everything that there is to do in a South African shirt apart from winning a World Cup," said du Plessis.
This did not sit well with some of the former South Africa players, including Herschelle Gibbs and Ashwell Prince who have asked if du Plessis' stance amounted to putting an individual over the team. Gibbs, in fact, went as far as to bring up a comparison with Jacques Kallis, who he said had achieved much more than what de Villiers has, without getting the leeway to decide on when to play and when not to.
But aren't the reasons offered by de Villiers for taking a break from Test cricket compelling enough? Are they so flimsy as to attract such chastisement from the former players? The swashbuckling batsman had made it clear time and again that his prime focus now is to win the World Cup for South Africa. He also wanted to reconnect with his family, having spent days away from home. Mind you, all he wanted was to recharge his batteries as it were, to prevent burnout; it was not his intention to retire from the longest format of the game.
"I needed a bit of time away from the game and I need some more," de Villiers said before the T20 series against Sri Lanka earlier this year. "Therefore, I made myself unavailable for the New Zealand series, but to add to that is also the England series and the Bangladesh series after that. I am hoping to make a comeback with the Titans towards the end of the year in preparation for the series against India and against Australia. That's the plan. I am not committing to it but I am hoping to make a comeback there in Test cricket.
"My dream plan is to come back for those eight Test matches and that's all I can say for now. My focus is on the 2019 World Cup but if I feel physically incapable of making it after those two Test series, I will call it a day then," de Villiers said.
Now, there are two-three points to consider here. Isn't it the prerogative of a player to decide on his career. After all, it is only he who knows whether he has the fire in his belly to give it his hundred percent. It is only the player himself who can decide if he feels passionate enough to play a particular format, for instance. Prince, however, would not have agreed.
After South Africa went out of the Champions Trophy following a heavy loss to India in June, Prince stated that it should be the national cricket board that should take a call on who should get the honour of turning out in South Africa colour, not the player in question per se. Criticism was mounting on de Villiers for 'picking and choosing' matches to play and Prince's reference to de Villiers was more than obvious.
However, here is a question for Prince — Is it right to force a player to turn up for a game when his heart and soul is somewhere else? They say, you can take an unwilling horse to the lake, but you can't make it drink. Moreover, an unwilling player won't be able to give his very best when not at full tilt, the skills of the player and his importance to the team notwithstanding.
The issue now is, as former South African skipper Graeme Smith puts it, should de Villiers appear in every Test match, ODI, and T20 he can possibly do (not to forget his commitments for various franchise-based T20 leagues around the world), and risk an end to his career in a year or so, or choose his matches wisely in order to keep himself fresh and hungry for the World Cup two years down the line? Remember, he is already 33.
"Those criticising AB, and this decision in particular, need to ask themselves whether they would rather de Villiers played in the upcoming (Test) series and walked away from international cricket in a year, or have the opportunity to see him go on and play for his country at another big ICC tournament," Smith said.
World Cups have always been cause for heartbreaks for the South Africans. They either have been short-changed by the rules, or found incredible and 'inventive' ways to lose and exit, often in spite of playing like champions for most part of the tournament.
Cricket South Africa (CSA) chief executive Haroon Lorgat for once acknowledged the importance of having de Villiers fit and raring to go if South Africa were to mount an almighty charge at the showpiece event. And when the player has himself professed the significance a World Cup win has in his career – a passion magnified many times over especially considering that it will in all probability be his last appearance at the tournament, it makes ample sense to protect him from burn out.
"We've given him the latitude of taking time off, of setting himself for the 2019 World Cup. It is very much part of our planning,” Lorgat had said.
Now, if it is part of the South African board’s planning to save de Villiers for bigger battles and greater challenges, it is perfectly reasonable, but what would set a bad precedent and hence should not be encouraged is to put a player on a pedestal, even if he has been a modern day ‘great’ like de Villiers.
Even a legend like Kallis has had to face reprimand from his coach as he was seen to be picking and choosing matches to appear in. This was when Kallis had made himself unavailable for the 2013 Champions Trophy and the tour to Sri Lanka. It was a time when South Africa was going through a slump in ODIs and the coach Russell Domingo warned Kallis that he couldn’t constantly be rested and yet expect to be in the squad for the 2015 World Cup. The problem for Kallis was that he was skipping the very 50-over format that the World Cup was a part of. Kallis, in the end, did not play the 2015 World Cup and announced his international retirement after a poor ODI series against Sri Lanka in 2014.
De Villiers’ case is a bit stronger given that he is asking for curtailing the stresses and strains of the five-day format to be fresh for limited overs cricket. There is no clash with the World Cup there. However, du Plessis’ affording his childhood friend de Villiers the liberty and right to decide whatever he wanted to regarding his career, reeked of a tendency to regard an individual even bigger that the nation. And that’s what Gibbs and Prince are afraid of, with Prince rightly pointing out that tomorrow, another star Hashim Amla could be regarded as having earned the right to take a call on which match to play and which not to play, and then more of the others and soon it would be a free for all. For a team already dented by Kolpak-induced player exodus, this now would be no short of disaster.
That being said, an extension of the nation being bigger than the individual argument is that nobody is indispensable. Legends have come and gone and teams have had to adapt. Newer stars have emerged who have threatened to even overshadow their predecessors. South Africa should learn to live life without de Villiers. The knowledge that they would have to do so sooner rather than later would help the rest of the players to pull themselves out of their comfort zone and that would in fact facilitate the emergence of the de Villiers of the future.
Clinging on to de Villiers would essentially also prevent a successor from taking shape. It will keep the doors unduly closed for a deserving player.
The failure in the Test series England was a collective failure of the batsmen. What was the certainty that had de Villiers played he would have fared any better? And even if he would have, what chance would he have had if the rest of the batting line-up contributed precious little?
So let's be honest. De Villiers picking and choosing matches to play does nobody much good. It is an injustice to players who, for all their talent, may end up as a only a perennial replacement for a superstar. It is inimical for the South African team, whose interests would be sacrificed at the expense of de Villiers' stardom. He should either decide to leave Tests altogether – as Mahendra Singh Dhoni did – and concentrate solely on limited overs and the World Cup in particular, or he should play both formats and be committed towards them. Whatever be his stature, de Villiers should be made to prove his form to get back into the side, and his quality, stardom and achievements should not be made an excuse to afford him an easy entry into the side.