Betrayal. Cricket’s greatest folly. But just who was the guilty party?6 October 2020
(His former South African teammate Faf du Plessis is, one must add, batting even better, averaging a whopping 95 from the five matches played so far in this Covid-delayed year).
So why has De Villiers, who had been South Africa’s short-form captain too, not played cricket for South Africa in the short forms of the game (20 overs-a-side and 50-overs-a-side) for years?
It’s a tangled and sorry tale – one that brings some shame on AB but mostly shame on the South African cricket establishment (which itself has been mired in administrative scandal and disarray for years).
The world’s most talented batsman, was not in his country’s squad to compete for one of the two greatest international trophies in his sport: the 20-overs-a-side Cricket World Cup.
De Villiers, who led South Africa to the semi-finals of the previous World Cup four years ago, had shocked the cricketing world when he announced his retirement from all international matches in May 2018.
Only three years previously, he had hit both the fastest fifty and the fastest century by a batsman in One Day International cricket, off 16 balls and 31 balls. During that astonishing innings he smashed 149 runs off 44 balls in just under an hour of mayhem against West Indies.
During the 2015 World Cup he amassed 482 runs at an average of 96.0 and strike rate of 144.0 during the tournament.
In a World Cup match against the West Indies De Villiers scored 162 runs off 66 balls. That made him the record holder for the fastest 50, 100 and 150 in One-Day (50-overs-a-side) international history.
Not even halfway through his thirties, and looking lean and recovered from injury, his ‘retirement’ announcement in 2018 was mystifying – especially as he seemed to have enough appetite for the game to continue playing successfully in the highly lucrative Indian Professional League.
Just 24 hours before South Africa’s selectors picked the 15-man squad for the World Cup in England in 2019, he is said to have phoned his friend, South African captain Francois (“Faf”) du Plessis, and offered his services to the current World Cup side.
Yet the convenor of selectors, Linda Zondi, said the offer was “not even considered” and he has “no regrets”.
The reason given as to why De Villiers’s offer was refused: he didn’t play any domestic cricket or international cricket in the last year, which was against the rules for eligibility for selection.
Zondi also said it would not have been fair on other players who had been performing in the last few months before the 2091 World Cup. For example, Rassie van der Dussen could have missed out despite scoring three fifties in his first four one-day international innings.
De Villiers had previously revealed that he wanted to play the World Cup but “felt cornered” by expectation and criticism.
“I was keen to play in the World Cup, but I left, I retired. So it was a very sensitive situation. For the last three years of my career, I was labelled as a guy who is picking and choosing when I was playing and when not.
“So I got quite a lot of criticism from back home, which also played a role in me retiring. And it was difficult for me to then go ‘hey, but I’ll still play the World Cup’. It’s that picking and choosing thing again, and it’s quite arrogant to do something like that. But as they say, you can’t have your bread buttered on both sides,” said de Villiers, while featuring in an episode for Youtube channel Breakfast with Champions.
“I felt cornered. It’s always been about the team, it’s never been about myself. But I found myself in a position where I had to make a decision where it’s going to look like I’m just thinking about myself.”
Yet there was a strong – and in my opinion decisive – counter-argument. De Villiers was and is the difference between a team of also-rans and a potentially world-beating squad. He deserved to be an exception to any rule made by the selectors. He is box-office.
Look what happened in 2019 in his absence. After three matches out of a scheduled nine, with the top four teams qualifying for the semi-finals, the much-vaunted South Africans were languishing second-last out of the ten competing teams. They had been defeated so far by England, India and (most humiliatingly) by relative newcomers Bangladesh.
AB’s presence would have helped inspire the team, giving them hope of real victory rather than the likelihood of abject surrender. The team exhibited the same under-performances in most of their matches (until beating arch-rivals Australia when it was far too late for South Africa to proceed to the semi-finals).
Short of radical reformation and inspiration, South African cricket seems set to continue its unbecoming image: of snatching defeat from the jaws of any potential victory.