The Curious Case of AB de Villiers
When AB de Villiers retired from international cricket in 2018, it left an enormous void for South Africa that was never likely to be properly filled. And they knew that at the time - Linda Zondi, the national selector for Cricket South Africa (CSA), claimed that she ‘pleaded with him not to retire in 2018’. She also claimed to have offered to manage his workload - his primary reason for retirement was the fact that he was ‘running out of gas’ - to allow him to enter the World Cup fresh and ready, but he was ‘at peace with his decision to retire’ and chose not to take up the offer.
Fast forward a few months, and de Villiers suddenly put his hand up to play in the biggest tournament in the world just days before South Africa’s World Cup squad was announced. The offer must have been tempting. De Villiers is one of the greatest ODI players to ever play the game, perhaps even the greatest, ending his career with 9577 runs at an average of 53.50 and a strike rate of 101.09, as well as 25 100’s and 53 50’s.
But the selectors turned him down. For all that he could bring to the squad in terms of talent and run-scoring ability, there appeared to be a belief that including him would be unfair to other players. According to Zondi, ‘we had players who put in the hard work…and deserved to be given the opportunity to go to the World Cup. We had to be fair to the team, the selection panel, our franchise system and our players’.
One of the players who would most likely have been directly affected by the decision had AB been given a place in the squad is Rassie van der Dussen, and he, unsurprisingly, agreed with the call. While clearly not wanting to directly criticise de Villiers, van der Dussen did note that the star batsman had been given the opportunity to manage his workload in the lead up to the World Cup, didn’t take it, and that was it. If he had been allowed to play, said his replacement in the middle order, it would have ‘set a difficult precedent’.
And he’s probably right. For all that de Villiers could bring to the team, the squad as it exists now had been ‘working for something for a year and even longer than a year’, as van der Dussen said, and bringing in a player who hadn’t been involved in that process, as good as he might be, certainly had the potential to delegitimise some of those efforts.
Having said that, the way the South Africans have started the tournament suggests they could probably have done with a little help from one of the greatest batsmen the world has ever seen. They started off by getting belted by England on the opening night of the tournament by over 100 runs, and followed that up with a disappointing loss to Bangladesh. They then managed just 227/9 against India, which was chased down with six wickets and 15 deliveries remaining, before having their match against the West Indies washed out - though in that one, they had again started shakily, falling to 2/29 after 7.3 overs. Against Afghanistan they finally put in the type of performance they are capable of, though it was largely with the ball - they bowled Afghanistan out for just 125 runs, before chasing it down in 28.4 overs and with nine wickets to spare.
Their batting has been particularly disappointing, with very few able to consistently contribute. Quinton de Kock has been the best of them, averaging 46.5 in his five innings for 186 runs at a strike rate of 86.11, but after that the list of contributors drops off fairly quickly. In fact, it’s de Villiers replacement in van der Dussen who has been next best, though his average of 37.66 and top score of 50 are hardly eye popping numbers. Faf du Plessis and David Miller have similar stats, while the once brilliant Hashim Amla has continued to struggle, accumulating just 66 runs at a strike rate of 54.09 in his four innings so far.
Suddenly, a team which prior to the tournament was ranked third in the world and seemed likely to be fighting it out with New Zealand and perhaps Australia for the last spot or two in the final four is looking likely to miss out entirely. Sitting at one win from five matches, they will probably need to win their last four games to advance out of the Group Stage, and with games against New Zealand and Australia to come that seems unlikely given their prior form.
At this stage, perhaps a player of the ilk of AB de Villiers would have been useful in the squad. In fact, he almost certainly would have. But that doesn’t mean the selectors necessarily made the wrong decision. It was definitely a strange move to de Villiers to put his hand up as late as he did after making the decision to retire, but obviously the desire to compete at the highest level still burns brightly and the lead-up to the game’s biggest tournament brought that out in him. As national selector Linda Zondi and middle-order batsman Rassie van der Dussen mentioned, however, there had been over a year of work put in to this event, and AB de Villiers had, by choice, not been involved in it. Whether they are currently regretting their decision to turn him down is difficult to know, but the selectors can rest easily knowing that there was plenty of logic behind their reason to do so.