A Springbok rugby player tells a moving story of the day he knew his career was over. It was a midwinter morning and the sky was a cloudless, bright blue. The sun was still low in the sky and the dew was still frozen on the grass in the shade of the training sheds. It was between three and four degrees but would climb steadily to at least 20 degrees, as it always did. It was a painfully beautiful, peaceful time of day. Yet he hated it so much it was like an allergic reaction.
He suffered what he later described as a panic attack and had to be taken home by a team-mate. He’d been training early morning since he was six or seven years old, barefoot, and now, at the age of 34, he couldn’t face another step of it. It wasn’t, in fact, as sudden as that. It had been building for months. But when the end came, it was brutal. The story of A.B. de Villiers is different, but not the sentiment or the finality of it. After a decade of international cricket, de Villiers began to feel the effects of the rat wheel. Round and round and round… Whereas the majority of the game’s top international players gain more than enough satisfaction simply by scoring runs and taking wickets, de Villiers was different. He needed context.
The last half dozen years of his career was liberally sprinkled with assertions that he was “not interested in breaking records…only in winning games of cricket.” Turns out, he meant every word, every time he said them.
For the last two years, he has been battling the dread of all that comes with international cricket off the field. One of his last major interviews was for Wisden Cricket Monthly in February. It was at least the 30th interview we’d done together. Only, this time, it took three weeks to set up as opposed to the 30 seconds I’d come to expect over the years.
“I’m really sorry,” he said when we finally sat down. “I’ve done so many over the years, so many… I literally recoil now when I’m told there’s another one to do. But let’s go, fire away…”
He gave everything to the job as a player and especially as a captain. He did not allow himself the ‘luxury’ of the private time he needed and he was painfully sensitive to criticism, even the idiotic blatherings of social media fools. Whereas most sportsmen laugh it off or successfully isolate themselves from it, de Villiers would wonder why people would say the things they did?
Most hurtful were the jibes about him “picking and choosing” his games. It did look that way for a while but only because he was spectacularly let down by his employers, who did not have the gumption or life experience to recognise his cries for help and a country without the collective emotional intelligence to accept let alone support something they had never seen before.
The same does not apply in South African cricket. When de Villiers asked, often in understandably confused sentences, for his “workload to be managed,” the response from Cricket South Africa was to suggest a pay cut to go along with a reduced playing schedule. Nice. It was simply beyond its scope to recognise let alone appreciate genius and treat it accordingly.
Hence de Villiers’ video statement: “I believe it has to be all or nothing…” No, that is what he was told. So we have nothing. The impression should never have been created that de Villiers was “picking and choosing” his games and tours. That job should been done for him by CSA and it should have made that clear. Instead, it selected him to play in an invitational three-day warm-up match against Zimbabwe in faraway Paarl. Three days before Christmas. A man who wanted to spend more time with his young family. Nice.
Having committed himself to getting through to next year’s World Cup, de Villiers found himself in the same place as the rugby player — he just couldn’t take another step.
Beating Australia in a home Test series had been the context to motivate him through this summer, but going to Sri Lanka (or anywhere for that matter) for another meaningless bilateral series filled him with dread. Who knows what might have been had CSA issued a statement boldly asserting that de Villiers would not be required for that tour?
The great man says he has no plan to play elsewhere or to “cash in” on Twenty20 leagues around the world, although he does have one burning ambition remaining – to win the Indian Premier League with Royal Challengers Bangalore.
International cricket will miss him desperately, but, though he will miss his team-mates and “that special feeling of winning games of cricket for your country,” he will not miss it.
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