Where’s the real AB de Villiers?

It is painful to witness the insipid phase of a player who is known to conjure awe-inspiring and magical moments on the cricket field.

Of late, the signature de Villiers has been invisible.   -  Getty Images

A Cricket South Africa promotional video features South African stalwarts AB de Villiers, Hashim Amla, Faf du Plessis, Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander surprising a starry-eyed child, mad about cricket. The one message driven home to that child was to “never lose the passion, whatever you do in life, doesn’t have to be cricket.”

It was said by de Villiers, the man who has set the standards of the modern game, a man who plays not merely to ‘do his job’. Be it his fastest One-Day International century, the block-a-thon to save a Test, his incredible fielding and even competent wicket-keeping skills — he can do it all and loves performing on the big stage. When he lights up on a cricket field, he awakens the crowd in a manner few others can do.

But of late, the signature de Villiers has been invisible.

As the captain in the World Cup in 2015, he fell one step short of making a dream come true for any well-wisher of South African cricket. There were tears in his eyes when New Zealand sneaked past his team in the dying stages of the semifinal; it meant the elusive trophy could, probably, only be gained in 2019, when de Villiers would be 35. Since that emotional and energy-filled occasion in Auckland, there have been few moments of magic that we have come to expect from de Villiers.

In the weeks to follow, there would be controversy surrounding that game. Political interference for South Africa’s semifinal team to adhere to racial quotas made headlines. Although the claim was denied by the Board, that there was an undercurrent of change seemed to be proved when the policy of an official racial quota in the national team was declared in 2016.

The team suffered a rare Test series loss in its tour of India in the 2015-16 season. De Villiers showed his ‘one-man army’ qualities with a jaw-dropping innings in the ODI series decider, before the Tests began. When he reached his century — he finished with 119 off 61 balls — he tapped his chest with his fist in a passionate moment of celebration. The Test series to follow was a scarring experience for South Africa, which had rarely suffered a one-sided loss as this in the last few years. De Villiers had an adequate series with the bat, scoring two half-centuries in extremely spin-friendly tracks. He would gain the Test captaincy in the next series, at home against England.

Hashim Amla, the regular Test captain, could not take up that responsibility any more. When Amla was offered the role in 2015, de Villiers was surprised. Now, he was glad to claim the role, to beckon a new era. After leading his team to a consolation Test win in Centurion, he became absent as South Africa’s front man. Faf du Plessis, the regular Twenty20 captain, led South Africa to another failed ICC campaign — the World Twenty20 in 2016 — and then went on to captain the Test side in the team’s assignments against New Zealand at home and Australia away. De Villiers moved away from cricket for a while due to his problems with his left elbow, for which he needed surgery. In December, de Villiers relinquished his captaincy to give du Plessis the role, full time.

AB de Villiers plans to play the 2019 World Cup, which may be his final shot at the title.   -  K. R. Deepak


But not only did he give up the leaders’ role, he also stepped away from the format for a while. He played the shorter formats, perhaps because they were less stressful to the body, and because he would soon lead his team in the ‘mini’ World Cup, the ICC Champions Trophy, a chance for World Cup redemption, albeit in a slightly smaller arena.

For a player who thrives on conjuring moments of magic, this tournament turned out to be a fizzer. Contrary to the World Cup campaign, his body language seemed insipid, the energy and emotions were absent. It seemed he had lost the purpose of the whole deal, a phase of absent motivation. When the meaning behind any endless pursuit goes away, men go through the motions, and that is what seemed to happen to de Villiers. He failed with the bat, and his team tamely exited in the group stages.

When de Villiers started his cricket journey, he played the game to make an impact. The goals kept changing, as they do when men mature, and now he seemed to not be able to find much purpose. The demotivating factors could be family (he was about to have his second child during the Champions Trophy), the burden of the racial quotas to be implemented in a season, the Kolpak signings, or even the uncertainty surrounding the head coach, who only recently signalled his intent to extend his contract.

As de Villiers has himself stated, he plans to play the 2019 World Cup, which may be his final shot at the title. As he sits with the board members in August to chart the course for the immediate future for himself, South Africa seems to be drifting on to an uncertain future itself. Its racial quotas could dent its success for the short term, even if the sport in the country becomes more inclusive in the longer term. The stalwarts of a golden era will fade away soon, too, as they age.

AB de Villiers has overseen much success in cricket. As a player, he has achieved various landmarks to be classified among the greats of the modern era. If that lost ‘meaning’ has to be found for him to become alive again, for an extra burst of energy before closure, he will have to seek it beyond the mundane, and against the odds.

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