Cape Town – For all the gamut of domestic emotions surrounding his partial, yet pronounced withdrawal from it, AB de Villiers is simultaneously devaluing and imperilling the future of Test cricket more broadly.
By the time he returns to Tests, as reportedly desired, against India next season, almost two years will have passed since he graced the format.
His last appearance in the five-day arena was the dead-rubber fourth Test against England at Centurion in January last year, and if he does – or is allowed to – come back for a burst of four appearances each at home to the Indians and then Australia during 2017/18 after skipping several series in between, then the gap will have been a conspicuously long and pretty unorthodox one.
It is exceedingly difficult not to feel -- despite the support he has received from veteran administrator and former national captain Dr Ali Bacher over recent strategic career choices – that De Villiers is showing a certain disdain for the brand of the game traditionalists still hold dear to a far greater extent than the two limited-overs ones.
For all the adulation he commands both within our borders and more globally, a strong sense will almost inevitably take root that De Villiers is taking the proverbial p*ss: he is unavailable for the looming series against New Zealand, England and Bangladesh, a period stretching over some seven months, yet magically resurfaces – obviously necessitating someone dropping out – for the India and Australia challenges.
It all sounds just a bit too much like the self-interested proclamations of His Royal Highness, doesn’t it?
To think that the recent decisions De Villiers has taken won’t impact at all on general morale, continuity and harmony in the national set-up would be naïve or, at best, over-optimistic.
Of course there will be those in the swollen De Villiers fan club pointing to the fact that, after an already 106-cap Test career spanning a dozen often highly prosperous years for both player and team, he owes South Africa very little in that particular landscape.
And he has been a near-sublime servant: 8,074 runs at an exceptional average of 50-plus is testimony to that, coupled with the fact that he has been a largely uncomplaining yo-yo factor as wicketkeeper at times, too.
His treatment hasn’t always been the best, either: I will never forget my first one-on-one magazine interview with De Villiers when he was a 20-year-old rookie, no more than an hour or two after completion of his third Test match and maiden sampling of victory (against England at Newlands, January 2005).
He had kept wicket, quite smartly, and when I asked him how he felt about the far more experienced Mark Boucher earning a recall to the mix for the next Test (albeit that De Villiers was staying as a batsman) he confessed with a startled look that he hadn’t been informed.
The media had been dubiously given the squad even before certain players had been notified; understandably, De Villiers seemed distracted for much of the remainder of the chat.
Although I share the view that he should instead be making a clean break from Tests if he really intends to curtail his involvement in the format so dramatically (his “partial retreat” policy is going to cause ripples, and threaten his public and Proteas camp popularity) my major emotion is one of sadness.
It is so regrettable that another batsman with so much still to offer the premier format is clearly so close to pulling the plug on Tests altogether, even as he has not yet ticked over to his 33rd birthday.
Instead he will remain a busy presence -- just a little ironically considering his stated workload angst -- at 50-overs and the especially lucrative Twenty20 level, whether for country or franchise.
When the blue-chip, four-Test series for the Basil D’Oliveira Trophy takes place in England, the home of cricket, in mid-year, we know now that the Proteas will be without their most attractive stroke-player, whilst England – although circumstances are slightly different and perhaps even more complex – are again sans one of their likeliest “gun” batsmen in Kevin Pietersen.
As with the increasing phenomenon we will see from De Villiers, Pietersen plies his trade overwhelmingly these days on the bish-bosh T20 tournament circuit, cricket’s version of the skop, skiet en donner movie rather than a multi-layered arthouse classic.
Already we have seen how any hope of a much-needed revival in Test cricket by West Indies, they of that thrilling, iconic period between the mid-1970s and early 1990s, has been shattered by the clear-cut preference of Chris Gayle and other heavy-sluggers in the Caribbean for the money-spinning abbreviated forms of the game.
South Africa suffers, with De Villiers choosing Tests as his “fall guy” in roster-culling terms henceforth.
But so does the world Test environment; its slip toward irrelevance and extinction has just accelerated a bit more.
If it is to stand a chance of retaining sufficient allure, you have to wonder whether international cricket can really afford, given the travel and time demands it places on individuals, to keep all three of Tests, ODIs and T20 fare steaming along, side by side.
Something may need to be pushed over a cliff.
Sadly it’s beginning to look as though, a bit further down the track, it may be Tests if its remaining devotees aren’t very careful indeed.
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