AB de Villiers is mindful of avoiding a repeat of the debacle that unfolded during last year’s 50-over World Cup in England © Getty
If AB de Villiers plays for South Africa again, thank Mark Boucher. If he doesn’t, curse the coronavirus pandemic that has cast into doubt his mooted comeback at this year’s currently scheduled T20 World Cup.
In an interview with Afrikaans-language Sunday newspaper Rapport, de Villiers was quoted as saying, “I could write a book on ‘Bouchie’s impact just on my life, nevermind cricket. I rediscovered that when I played under him at the Spartans [in the Mzansi Super League] in December. He was born to be an instructor. When he talks there’s respect.”
De Villiers played in 176 of Boucher’s 461 matches for South Africa across the formats. When Boucher’s career was ended by an eye injury in Taunton in July 2012, during the first game of South Africa’s tour to England, de Villiers – long since a regular batter in the Test XI and already the white-ball wicketkeeper and captain – replaced him behind the stumps in whites.
Boucher’s appointment as South Africa’s coach was announced two days before last year’s MSL final in Paarl on December 16, when the Rocks won by eight wickets despite de Villiers’ 37-ball 51 for the Spartans.
By then, Boucher had spoken about to de Villiers about rescinding the decision he revealed to a shocked cricket world in May 2018, when, at 34, he walked away from the international arena.
“‘Bouch’ asked me why don’t I give it another go,” de Villiers said. “He said ‘guys like us who love cricket want you there’, and it was very good to hear that. I’ve always said to him, ‘I’ve never not wanted to be there. I’ve always wanted to be there. It’s just, my life has changed’. The situation I’m in is that it isn’t just about me and my cricket dreams anymore. I have a family now and a bunch of other things play a role: my health, how much I can play in a year and how much I can tour.”
The T20 World Cup in Australia in October and November glints on the horizon as an apt stage for de Villiers coming back. But he was mindful of avoiding a repeat of the debacle that unfolded during last year’s 50-over World Cup in England after reports emerged that his casually expressed offer to come back had been rejected. Cricket South Africa said the selectors heard of de Villiers’ proposal on the same day the squad was announced, by which time he had taken himself out of the running by not being available for South Africa’s matches before the tournament.
“I am uncertain about giving a definite answer because I have been very hurt and burned in the past,” Rapport quoted de Villiers as saying. “Then people will again think I have turned my back on our country. I can’t just walk into the team. Like every other player, I have to work for my place and deserve it. It was very hurtful for me last year when people thought I assumed there was a place for me. I feel available and I will give it a go with everything I have, but I don’t want special treatment.”
The coronavirus outbreak, which has forced the cancellation or postponement of many events, has added to the uncertainty surrounding De Villiers’ possible return. The T20 World Cup remains on the schedule, but with much of the world in lockdowns that are being extended – including in South Africa – prospects of sport resuming in the next few months are fast receding.
“I can’t see six months into the future,” de Villiers said. “If the tournament is postponed to next year a whole lot of things will change.” Part of what could be different is de Villiers’ fitness – he has a chronic back condition that has taken him off the field in the past. “At the moment I feel available, but at the same time I don’t know how my body will see it and if I will be healthy at that time.”
With little or no game time likely before the tournament, preparing properly will be a challenge. “If I am 100% as good as I want to be, then I will be available,” de Villiers said. “But if I am not I won’t open myself up to that because I am not the type of person who does things at 80%. Then I have to do trials and show ‘Bouchie’ I’m still good enough. They should choose me because I’m really better than the guy next to me. I’ve never been the type of person who felt I should get just what I wanted.”
About all that can be confirmed about de Villiers pulling on South Africa’s green and gold kit again is that the issue remains unresolved: “I’m terribly afraid to say now yes, I’m available. And then in six months my whole life has changed as a result of the virus, or other uncertainties around the world, and I have to withdraw. Then a lot of people will be angry with me again. And even if [the T20 World Cup] is not postponed, I last played cricket in January and may not be able to play for the next three months.
“My situation could change and I might get to a point where I have to tell ‘Bouch’ I was interested, I would like to play a role but I’m not going to be able to play myself. I’m afraid of such a commitment and creating false hope.”
Too late: if de Villiers doesn’t play for South Africa again might he be part of their coaching staff?