That gravity-defying leap was superhuman even by AB de Villiers’ standards. Alex Hales stepped out and muscled a length delivery from Moeen Ali. The connection seemed to have enough meat to take the ball over the deep mid-wicket boundary. The trajectory, however, was a little flat and de Villiers started running towards it. He leapt high but the ball swirled away. De Villiers instinctively put his right hand out, when he was still airborne. The ball nestled into his palm. The small matter of not landing on the rope had been taken care of as well.
From his position at long-off, Virat Kohli started a 100m sprint, his eyes registering disbelief. De Villiers went into the embrace of his Royal Challengers Bangalore’s team mates, as Hales, the Sunrisers Hyderabad opener, trudged slowly back to the pavilion. That was May 17. Six days later, de Villiers posted as video message on Twitter, saying: “Hi, this the Tuks Cricket Club, the high performance centre, in Pretoria, where 14 seasons ago I arrived as a nervous youngster, when I was first called into the Proteas squad. Here at the same place, I want to let you know that I have decided to retire from all international cricket with immediate effect.
“After 114 Test matches, 228 One-Day Internationals and 78 T20 Internationals, it is time for others to take over. I had my turn and to be honest I’m tired. This is a tough decision, I have thought long and hard about it and I’d like to retire while still playing decent cricket. After the fantastic series wins against India and Australia, now feels like the right time to step aside.”
De Villiers left the cricket world gobsmacked. He finished the IPL with 480 runs from 12 matches for RCB. The strike-rate column showed: 174.54. Some of his shots made his team mates, including Kohli, gape in awe. Before the IPL, he played a stellar role in South Africa’s home Test series win against Australia, scoring 427 runs in four matches, including a century and four half-centuries. Against India also, earlier this year, he made a couple of match-winning contributions with the bat. De Villiers hardly looked fatigued.
Yes, he took a temporary recluse from cricket after suffering an elbow injury in 2016. De Villiers spoke about managing his workload then. Then he returned and hit the “refresh button”, making himself available for all formats. “Together with Cricket South Africa, we have tried to develop a viable schedule which allows me to prolong my career for as long as possible. This strategy has prompted some people to say I am picking and choosing when to play for the Proteas, and even to suggest I am somehow putting myself before the team. That is simply not true. That has never been true. Playing for South Africa is, and will always be, the greatest privilege of my life,” de Villiers had said.
So his decision to depart the international scene, with the 2019 World Cup just 12 months away, raised many an eyebrow. It, in fact, has yet again thrown open the club versus country debate. De Villiers is still only 34 years old and supremely fit. Although he has a young family to look after, winning the World Cup for his country had been one of his top priorities. Then again, South African cricketers are among the lowest paid in world cricket; creating possibilities for friction between the players and the authorities. A lot of South African players have ditched international cricket to become T20 freelancers or move to the English counties through the Kolpak route. Only recently, fast bowler Morne Morkel called time on his international career and joined Surrey on a two-year contract.
De Villiers, though, spoke about how his decision to retire has had nothing to do with earning more money from somewhere else. “It’s not about earning more somewhere else, it’s about running out of gas and feeling that it is the right time to move on.” He, however, will play the IPL. RCB forked out Rs 11 crore this term to retain his services.
The proliferation of the franchise-based T20 tournaments is threatening to gobble up conventional cricket in the long run. Weaker cricket boards have already been teetering on the edge, always at risk of losing their best talents to cash-rich leagues. How funny that the International Cricket Council (ICC) is in a way fanning the flames rather than trying to douse the fire. The ICC’s decision to do away with the 2021 Champions Trophy (a 50-over format event), to be replaced with a World T20, is a case in point. The game’s governing body doesn’t mind holding back-to-back World T20s in 2020 and 2021. But that’s a different story.
Coming back to the South African genius, AB de Villiers’ impact goes way beyond his 8,765 Test runs or 9,577 ODI runs. For our generation, he was the ultimate cricketer. He could score centuries off just 31 balls, and he could also be the front man of an epic blockathon – 33 runs from 220 balls without a boundary against Australia to save a Test at the Adelaide Oval in 2012. He batted 360-degree, kept wickets for a period like a specialist and threatened to break partnerships with his seam-up deliveries. De Villiers was the ultimate #GOAT (greatest of all time) that contemporary cricket offered.