South Africa’s captain was a mess. His team hadn’t blown it this time: they had simply lost a hell of a game of cricket. But the sense of unfulfilled desperation was more intense than ever.
Four years previously he had been, as a player, part of a pathetic capitulation. Four years before that he was central to another meltdown.
Now he had to explain it all to the press and, not least, to himself. He couldn’t. Instead he looked and behaved as if he was ill, coughing and spluttering and retching through his media ordeal after the 2015 semi-final against New Zealand.
His name was AB de Villiers, and even he couldn’t win the World Cup in three attempts — the first two in the ranks, the third as captain. Who’s to say 2019 would have been any different?
For all his glittering gifts de Villiers has been as unable to get a team over the line as any and all of his compatriots. Except for Gary Kirsten, but that’s different.
So Linda Zondi, South Africa’s convenor of selectors, was right to deny de Villiers re-entry to the team he shocked — along with the rest of the cricket world — with his international retirement more than a year ago.
Zondi and a host of others pleaded with de Villiers not to walk away, but his mind was made up. Now, apparently, he wants to come back, which would undermine the credibility of the entire system.
You play domestic and franchise cricket to bring yourself to the selectors’ notice. Once you do, you guard your place in the national team like the precious thing it is. You don’t discard it and expect it to still be there when you choose to come back to it.
If much of the above sounds somehow familiar it might be because, earlier in his career, de Villiers would vacillate between claiming he couldn’t keep wickets because his back was sore — and keeping wickets. You would be forgiven for thinking he was trying to have it all on his own terms.
Unlike other players who call time on their international careers, he had several good years left. Importantly, it was his own decision to spend that time playing outside of the international arena. Just as importantly, his return is not his decision.
How is it relevant to the saga of de Villiers’ failed comeback attempt that he is unarguably among the best players in the game? He is more special than most in terms of talent and accomplishments, but not in terms of the respect he deserves — no more nor less than anyone else.
Besides, teams move on. Australia found a way forward after Bradman, England after Botham, and India after Tendulkar. South Africa are not the same, in good and bad ways, as the side he left behind. The difference with de Villiers is that he is a darling of the social media age and still looms large in the consciousness as a marquee player in competitions like the Indian Premier League (IPL).
But let’s not fall into the trap of comparing the apples of the IPL with the watermelons of something like the World Cup. Bashing bowlers, many of them of questionable calibre, on India’s flat pitches and small outfields under virtually no pressure — the IPL is a wonder of the modern game, a joyous circus of cricket, but who really cares who wins it? — is a long way from the glare and gravitas of a World Cup.
Faf du Plessis and his squad knew that before they arrived in England, but they are having it proved to them nonetheless. Nowhere can it be written that de Villiers would have been the difference between victory and defeat in the three games they have played, and lost. Not that it would have hurt to have him around.
But it hurt all cricketminded South Africans that, after news of his spurned offer broke on Thursday, all de Villiers saw fit to say was: “All that’s important is that we should all focus on supporting the team at the World Cup. There is a long way to go and I believe the boys can still go all the way.” And this, mind, on his Twitter account amid the clutter of product endorsements and plugs for his app. For a classy player, that was tacky. Asked questions that would have filled in some of the blanks, de Villiers’ representatives referred reporters to his tweet as their man’s sole comment on the issue.
There’s a lot in that, actually. It’s difficult to escape the conclusion that de Villiers isn’t just about scoring runs every which way, taking ridiculous catches, and helping teams surge to victory — and that he is instead about ego and money.
We think we know cricketers, and the way the game is presented to us does everything it can to entrench and enhance that view. The truth is starkly different. Who is the real AB de Villiers: the one who seemed on the verge of tears and trauma as he tried to articulate what had gone wrong for South Africa in the 2015 World Cup semi-final, or the one who dismisses the concerns of a nation and the national team he led and played for with a facile social media post?
Is any one person complex enough to live with those contradictions in something like harmony? Or was that night in Auckland, when de Villiers had to make do with a team not of his choosing, and take the rap for their defeat, the moment when everything changed for him? When push came to shove, and money and ego won out over the fulfilment that comes with striving to be the best?
We know de Villiers is a fine player. What else he is — and isn’t — is not known.