Johannesburg - For someone whose very nickname – Mr 360 – suggested impeccable timing, the Proteas’ retiring resident genius AB de Villiers has, over the years, played just enough false notes to point to his being human.
The first such off-key moment was the occasion of his singing in Maak Jou Drome Waar. The second has to be the announcement of his retirement from all international cricket this week, which was as abrupt as it was ill-timed if you’re a South African cricket fan.
When De Villiers’ retirement video dropped – as is the wont of sportspeople these days – the surprise was palpable in how many scrambled to find the words to describe what the gifted batsman’s career meant to them.
To many – this philistine rugby man who is partial to the metallic noise of fast bowling included – watching De Villiers play was a religious experience. He was technically perfect when he needed to be, belligerent when the occasion demanded it and simply exquisite when the mood took him.
But that doesn’t alter the fact that his retirement has left a giant hole in the Proteas team, which will, for the umpteenth time it seems, tilt at the windmill called winning the Cricket World Cup in England next year.
What is it about these Proteas greats and leaving their team in the lurch? Ahead of the last World Cup, it was Jacques Kallis, who – despite assurances he would be available – decided he would also forego the exhaustion of chasing the Holy Grail by retiring.
With the Proteas still having not filled that vacancy because Kallis calling it quits gave them a problem they didn’t even know they had, the search for an all-rounder at number seven continues unabated.
Now De Villiers has given them an even bigger headache for the next World Cup.
De Villiers’ retirement is a good and a bad thing.
The good part is that it further diminishes the number of experienced Proteas going to the World Cup (Morné Morkel hanging up his boots earlier this year was one), which makes coach Ottis Gibson and the selectors’ job much easier.
Forget that being an experienced Proteas player can also mean experience in clutching World Cup knockout games defeat from the jaws of victory, getting rid of one of the decorated players like Dale Steyn, Hashim Amla, Morkel and De Villiers might have proven tough for Gibson and co.
The other thing is that, with De Villiers gone, there should be less of a distraction along the lines of where he should bat. I’ve also had a theory, and it doesn’t have to be true, that with De Villiers around, the rest of the Proteas batsmen can outsource the batting responsibility to the genius instead of taking it on themselves.
Of course, none of this in any way suggests the Proteas are a better team without De Villiers – the abject test series without him against England last year, and the vastly improved performances with him against India and Australia are cases in point.
But the bad part is continuing to plug the gap left by Kallis and finding someone to replace De Villiers with a year to go to the World Cup.
In a way, this solves the potential problem of what to do with Amla and Aiden Markram. Instead of having to think about either to open the batting with Quinton de Kock, one – the younger man – can drop down to three or four, alternating with Faf du Plessis.
On form, the number spot would look set for the steely and intense wicket-keeper batsman Heinrich Klaasen with David Miller rounding off the top six. That said, now would have been a great time to have De Villiers in tow for a proper push at that World Cup.
While Superman may have been reduced to picking his fights physically, mentally he was coming into his own, and his need to artistically express himself was tempered by the need to jealously guard his wicket for the team.
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