Eighteen months after he abruptly quit the international game, five months after his offer to return during the World Cup created a very public furore, and even as South Africa fade significantly from world beaters into a struggling outfit, AB de Villiers has no regrets.
This year alone, South Africa suffered a whitewash in a home series for only the fifth time in their 130-year Test history, had their worst World Cup campaign, and were swept clean for the first time in a Test series on Indian shores. If you’ve been anywhere near South African cricket through this decline, you probably wondered if things might have been different had they still had the services of their talismanic No.4.
After all, there is little doubt that de Villiers walked away in his prime: In his last seven international innings, he had crossed fifty five times. One of them was a sublime century, against a world-class Australian attack, in the face of relentless reverse swing, helping level a series now infamous for other reasons. You’d think that those are numbers that make you feel like you’re on top of the world. But de Villiers chose to walk away from it all in a heartbeat.
In many ways, the announcement was the humanising of a cricketing god. It was another reminder of the exorbitant demands and expectations we often place on our heroes. Declarations of “I am tired” showed a man on whom 14 years on the road had taken a toll.
Now, though, he feels “fresh between tramping around from cricket to doing some business at home and spending some time with the family”. He’s found the right mix.
“I’m very happy. I’m still playing five or six months of the year. I feel like there’s been a fantastic balance between family time and cricket, which I really enjoy,” de Villiers tells Wisden on the sidelines of the MSL.
For those attuned to the stardom, walking away from it comes with its own set of challenges. And de Villiers has felt adulation across the world, more than most: From Kingsmead to Lord’s to Bengaluru, stadiums routinely reverberate in chants of “ABD”. Over a decade-and-a-half, de Villiers transcended into global superstardom, becoming that rare breed of cricketer able to form a connection with audiences across the world.
De Villiers admits to missing all of that, but remains steadfast in his belief that he made the right decision. “I’ll always miss that, the adrenaline rush that you get from playing for your country, in front of big crowds and the big moments … it’s difficult to get that feeling away from that level,” he says. “But I definitely don’t regret anything. I feel I’ve made the right decision, I’m exceptionally happy away from the game now.”
I’ve made a big decision today pic.twitter.com/In0jyquPOK
— AB de Villiers (@ABdeVilliers17) May 23, 2018
He admits to feeling sorry for the Proteas as he watched them get overpowered into submission by a bullish Indian side. But it has not made him go back on his decision and ask if he should have maybe stuck on. Part of that is because he has come to the realisation that he simply “can’t be out for two or three months at a time” anymore.
The purity of that conviction was briefly threatened when, shortly before the World Cup, it emerged that de Villiers had supposedly made a controversial offer to come out of retirement for the tournament. It was a development that sparked off outrage in some corners, but de Villiers maintains that it was meant to be a private conversation between himself, Faf du Plessis and a few members of the CSA board, and that he never compromised on his integrity.
“I think it’s been dealt with and there’s nothing really to add,” he says. “I had my say, and I don’t know how it came out. It was a casual conversation between myself and Faf and a few others, but what happened, happened, and I feel it has been dealt with. Once again, I was 100 per cent honest about what happened and how I felt at the time, and I’ve moved on now.”
Part of South Africa’s drop in performance in recent times has been down to the retirement of yesteryear stalwarts, such as de Villiers himself, Hashim Amla, JP Duminy and Dale Steyn (in Tests). Others, such as Kyle Abbott, have switched allegiances to take up Kolpak deals. That these have happened alongside a controversial restructuring of the domestic system and the CSA board being mired in financial doldrums has only compounded the macro cricketing scene in the country.
De Villiers doesn’t necessarily view players going overseas in the hunt for broader exposure as an evil. But left to him, he would create a system where South Africa are able to call upon their services when required.
“It’d be nice to have a system where you can allow players to play overseas,” he says, “but you can bring them back for the Proteas. I feel it’s actually perfectly set up with the three different formats, we can really do scheduling with certain players, where they play a county season, for instance, but they come back for ODIs only, if he’s like an ODI specialist.
“Funding will be a bit of a problem, but I feel like that’s the way forward. And with so much talent here, I think a system like that could be very beneficial for everyone. We’ve seen the kind of talent coming through the domestic level here, it’s not like we lose everything when guys go play overseas, because it gives opportunities for more talent to come through in South Africa. You combine those two, I think it’ll be really, really good.”
Since retiring, de Villiers has taken the oft-trodden path of a freelance T20 cricketer. Already an established presence with Barbados Tridents in the Caribbean Premier League, Royal Challengers Bangalore in the Indian Premier League, Rangpur Riders in the Bangladesh Premier League, and Tshwane Spartans in the Mzansi Super League, he is now set for his Big Bash League debut, having signed up with Brisbane Heat for the 2019/20 season that gets under way next month. These experiences put him in a unique position.
“It’s really a privilege to work with some of the youngsters and to feel that you have an impact on the way they think about the game and play the game,” he says. “I have really enjoyed that at Middlesex and wherever I’ve gone over the last 12 months, and now I have an opportunity at the Spartans to join forces with some of the youngsters, the young talent in South Africa.
“That’s fantastic. I’m getting to work with a guy like Wiaan Mulder. I’ve always really enjoyed the way he’s played the game and feel he can be one of our top cricketers for the Proteas in the future. And there are quite a few others. Lungi Ngidi, for instance … there are too many to mention, but it’s been fantastic to work with all of them.”
Should he decide to walk away from the sport entirely, de Villiers has got “a couple of business ideas” on the horizon. But for now, he’d like to think of himself as a cricketer. So while he may not miss “all the bus rides”, for as long as he remains involved with the sport as a player in some capacity, you can rest assured that there is some bowler, in some corner of the world, who is about to be taken on a ride.