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AB de Villiers' Retirement Shows How Pressures of International Sports Affects Individuals

Dileep Premachandran | Updated: May 24, 2018, 4:49 PM IST
AB de Villiers' Retirement Shows How Pressures of International Sports Affects Individuals

AB de Villiers (Image: ICC)

Just how good was AB de Villiers, the Test batsman? Here’s a clue. When needed, he could block as well as Trevor ‘Barnacle’ Bailey and Chris Tavare. On other days, he could scatter the bowling to all parts as Viv Richards once had, playing incredible strokes that left even the West Indian great open-mouthed. In his last act as an international player, he was instrumental in South Africa’s Test series wins over India and Australia, eclipsing two of the other greats of our time – Virat Kohli and Steve Smith.

Kohli, who calls his Royal Challengers Bangalore teammate his ‘brother from another mother’, always seems embarrassed by the comparisons. In his eyes, de Villiers remains the gold standard. The innings he played against India and Australia, in challenging conditions and against some extremely skillful bowlers, showed just why.

Graeme Smith, who was his first captain when he came into the South African side in 2004, quit before his 33rd birthday after more than a decade of leading the side. As much as the on-field challenges, he was worn down by the off-field intrigue, as a nation in flux navigated its way through a racial-transformation minefield. Smith reached one World Cup semifinal as captain (2007) and the failure to go further in the big tournaments remains an open wound.

Before the 2015 World Cup, de Villiers spoke earnestly of how his team wouldn’t be weighed down by baggage from the past. But there were other factors that he and his side couldn’t run from. Throughout the tournament, Kyle Abbott had been the Proteas’ best bowler. For the semifinal, Vernon Philander – who had spent most of the competition on the sidelines, injured – was drafted in so that transformation quotas could be met. Abbott was dropped.

South Africa lost a thriller to New Zealand at Eden Park. This time, there was no big-stage choke. Two magnificent sides traded haymakers for eight hours before Grant Elliott, born and raised in South Africa, struck the decisive blow off a disconsolate Dale Steyn. De Villiers was also in tears as he left the field. As much as their broken dreams, both men would have lamented South African cricket’s infinite capacity to shoot itself in the metatarsals.

De Villiers seemed far wearier after that experience. He played his 100th Test in front of his adopted home ground in Bangalore, but kept dropping hints about his future. The administrative malaise in South African cricket – the botched Global Cricket League being a prime example – would have done nothing to convince him that he should leave his future in such hands.

But the mess that he has opted to leave behind is not of South Africa’s making alone. Whether it’s announcing a Test championship or the setting up of yet another committee, the game’s administrators constantly drone on about the primacy of Test cricket. They just don’t walk the talk and make that cricket lucrative enough for the game’s finest.

Pawan Negi bowled four overs for Bangalore in this season’s IPL, and earned ten million Rupees for the privilege. That’s way more than de Villiers made for representing the Proteas across three formats last season. Yes, India is the game’s commercial hub and the IPL represents its pinnacle, but such a huge disconnect between the rewards on offer would make any professional with a finite shelf life think twice.

Cricket, which has seen its off-season swallowed up by mushrooming Twenty20 leagues, is also different from most other sports in terms of the time players have to spend away from their loved ones. The world’s best footballers also have to play 10 or 11 months a year, but they don’t have to spend hundreds of nights in hotel rooms entire continents away from home. It may seem a pampered lifestyle from the outside, but for those in the bubble, the joy that drew them to the game in the first place gets sucked out pretty quickly.

When de Villiers spoke of feeling tired in the message he left on social media, he wasn’t just talking of the physical toll. The mental fatigue does far more damage, as the likes of Steve Harmison and Jonathan Trott could tell you. The temptation to go on another year and end South Africa’s World Cup misery would have been hugely tempting, but by stepping away from the game when he has, de Villiers has shown us that we need to take better care of the game and those that illuminate it. Right now, we’re doing a lousy job of it.

First Published: May 24, 2018, 8:24 AM IST

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