AB de Villiers makes his World Cup pitch
AB de Villiers is 37. He doesn’t look it, and he certainly doesn’t play like one. Of all the franchise leagues he has graced, nowhere has he been more at home than the Indian Premier League. What de Villiers did against Kolkata Knight Riders (76 off 34 balls) is just a rough sample of what makes his batting uniquely devastating. With the highest death-overs strike rate of 234.37 against pacers across all IPL seasons, de Villiers is the man you want in the slog overs, especially in this part of the world. So, it’s only natural he wants to play for South Africa in the T20 World Cup in India in October-November.
“I haven’t had a discussion with Bouchy (Mark Boucher, South Africa coach) yet. We are lined up to have a chat somewhere during the IPL, but yes, we have been talking about it,” de Villiers said after Sunday’s match. “Last year, he asked me if I would be interested. And I said, ‘absolutely’. And come the end of the IPL, we will have a look at where we are at with regards to my form and my fitness.
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“Also, the situation with his team, he’s got to look at his guys who have been performing well over the last awhile. If there’s no space for me, so be it. If I can slot in there, it will be fantastic if all those things fall in place. Waiting for Bouchy towards the end of the IPL, and we will then plan accordingly.”
AB trying to come out of retirement (announced in 2018) in a dire attempt to play a World Cup isn’t something the world hasn’t seen before. He made a last-minute effort, calling up then captain Faf du Plessis the night before the 2019 World Cup squad was to be announced. “It was just a conversation, a phone call the night before the team got announced. It was just a ‘this is what I’m feeling’. I said to him, ‘I think it is too late but I will check in with the coach and the selectors the next morning to get their opinion on it as the squad was already announced or picked.’ But that day there was the announcement. When I spoke to the coach and the selectors the next day, they all agreed that it was way, way too late to change the team on 99.99,” du Plessis said towards the start of their World Cup campaign.
We all know how it turned out for South Africa. Without Dale Steyn (he picked up an injury in the IPL) and de Villiers, South Africa spiralled to ignominy, losing to Bangladesh, India, New Zealand and Pakistan, finishing seventh. With Kagiso Rabada admitting to dealing with “off-field distractions” it was clear South Africa were having a difficult time dealing with the news of de Villiers trying to return. Further complicating the situation was then Proteas coach Ottis Gibson's revelations that he had asked de Villiers to reconsider his retirement.
“I don’t think you should have to beg a guy to play for his country, but I did make it clear that I thought he was making a bad decision, that he could help us win the World Cup, and he said he had made his decision and it was time to spend time with his family, and that was the end of that really,” said Gibson during the World Cup. “Suddenly we have come to the World Cup and we have had one bad week, and AB is the saviour. But the guy is retired, he’s made his decision, and we as a team, and I guess you guys as well, we have to live with the decision that he’s made and he has to live with the decision that he’s made. To come the day before and say that he’d like to come back would seem a little bit strange to say the least,” he said.
That is all in the past though. With Boucher as coach and Graeme Smith as South Africa’s director of cricket, clearer communication is expected this time. On paper, South Africa need de Villiers to rectify combinations that often looked heavily bowling-oriented during the ODI and T20I series losses to Pakistan at home recently. Since the last World Cup, South Africa have lost 8 of 11 Tests, 3 of 9 ODIs and 13 of 18 T20Is.
Boucher confirmed during the T20I series that he had a word with de Villiers. “The conversation is still very open,” the former wicketkeeping great said. “AB being the person he is, he wanted to perform very well at the IPL to prove to himself and everyone else that he’s still a key figure in world cricket and can dominate at that level. I said to him, ‘you go do your thing and I’ll give you a shout towards the end of the IPL and see where you are.’”
All these are signs of a constructive dialogue to bring back not only one of the most impactful batsmen in white-ball cricket but also a genuine leader. De Villiers hasn’t played for South Africa in more than three years, but evidently that doesn't seem to affect his overall game.
How the current squad warms up to de Villiers is another issue but if he is reintegrated, South Africa may look to this T20 World Cup with renewed hope.