He won hearts easily with everything that he did on a cricket field. With his leadership, batting and fielding, AB de Villiers would spark a range of emotions from respect to admiration, from pride to envy and from hope to, at times, despair. In bidding the international game farewell through a simple, straight from the heart, video on social media, he invoked all these yet again.
How can anyone not respect De Villiers for admitting that he is tired? How can anyone not admire his desire to spend time with family? Would everyone not be proud that he came up with a carefully considered decision or, for that matter, envious that he could pack his bags without much ado? His dignified announcement also brings along hope that he would continue to back his team.
It would be hard to imagine that De Villiers would retire without having at another crack at winning the ICC Cricket World Cup. It is almost as if each of his fans decided that he would have to remain in the limited-overs game and try and get South Africa to win it. If they could, they would present him the glittering prize on July 14 next year. It accounts for the despair.
In March 2015, he led South Africa to their first win in a knockout game in World Cup history, beating Sri Lanka at the Sydney Cricket Ground in the quarter-finals. He would have liked to win that truncated but high-scoring semi-final against New Zealand in Auckland but he accepted a narrow defeat. It only got him to resolve to make winning the World Cup his raging ambition.
However, he seems to have made his peace with that absent silverware. For, he recently revealed to The Week that he had changed his mindset. “I don’t think the World Cup will define my career. Individually, I have had a fantastic career. I have enjoyed every second of it. I would love to win the World Cup with the team, but like I said, it will not define me,” he said.
That sounds straight from his heart. For, he knows no other way. Yet, even when they visualise him play those audacious strokes or take those amazing catches that capture his agility and athleticism, his fans will remember how he is the legend without that crown. But his will be a career that is complete even without a replica of the World Cup on the mantelpiece.
By radiating his immense joy when playing the game, he showed that his love for the game transcended everything. It is not surprising that all of India’s cricket fans allowed themselves to be romanced by his batsmanship, his array of strokes around the wicket. It seemed the most natural thing for connoisseurs and casual fans to be drawn to the way he played his cricket.
I cannot forget the humility with which he shared credit with Rilee Rossouw after blazing an unbeaten 162 off the hapless West Indies attack at the Sydney Cricket Ground in the 2015 World Cup. “I was feeling flat as I walked in to bat but Rilee’s energy lifted me,” he said, revealing how he reduced the pressure on himself.
Only a day earlier, De Villiers had to pretend not to be around in the media conference area when the West Indies skipper Jason Holder was taking questions from the press in the bowels of the Sydney Cricket Ground. He saved all his intimidation for the batting crease, slamming his opposite number for as many as four sixes in the final over.
The 2015 World Cup campaign symbolised all that he stood for. The team responded superbly, committing to one another and conveying the belief that each one trusted the others to be ready to go to war with him. A-B-D, as the Indian crowds are wont to chant his name, inspired the team to having that confidence — something that he can look back with pride and some satisfaction.
The call from CSA to include Vernon Philander, returning from a hamstring injury, in Kyle Abbot’s place in that semi-final in Auckland left De Villiers disappointed enough to make a passing mention in AB The Autobiography that was published in 2016. Of course, he also wrote that the fielding that day was not characteristic of his team.
The decision also comes in the wake of Morne Morkel’s — who was his Proteas teammate in 217 matches — decision to quit all forms of international cricket at the end of the long home season. De Villiers, only eight months his senior at 34 years of age, has followed, pleading that he had no gas left in the tank for the big battles. Perhaps, we will have to get used to the trend of players quitting before turning 35.
There will be a temptation to see this as a result of Cricket South Africa’s selection policies but in the absence of any indication from Morkel or De Villiers, it must be assumed that their reasons to quit international competition is more cricket-related and personal than political. It must be a sign of the times that cricketers, having earned a fair bit, wish to devote more time to family.
The cricketers’ response to his decision is an indication of how this is becoming paramount now. There is no doubt that every Indian cricketer — elite or up-and-coming — who has interacted with De Villiers will have only good things to say and remember about him. His easy-going manner, one which entailed his keeping his feet firmly planted to earth, endeared himself to everyone.
Talking of memories, we will remember De Villiers as one of the gentlest souls to have graced the cricket field, as one of the most creatively destructive batsmen who invoked fear in the hearts of the opposition and as one of the most athletic fielders of his time. We will remember him for the dignity and grace with which he conducted himself all the time.