It’s been a week since AB de Villiers stood on the field where he had taken the first steps in what would become a remarkable career, and said he was too tired to continue on that journey.
Sporting retirements affect different people differently. If you cover a sport professionally, it is your duty to not let emotional bias get in the way of reporting the story of the match, or the one beyond the boundary. About the only time you are legitimately allowed to drop that guard is during final farewells. Even if de Villiers will continue to play for the Titans, or in T20 leagues, a goodbye to the South Africa jersey – white and green – is final enough as farewells go. And it is perhaps fitting that emotions get in the way then, because if you don’t have that attached to sport, then what are you watching it for?
It’s thus been a week in which I have felt closer to Dr Watson than ever. In the BBC’s excellent adaptation of Sherlock Holmes, at the end of the Reichenbach Fall episode, Watson is standing by the grave of the supposedly dead Holmes, and he pleads for “one more miracle”. In that speech, he also says, “You told me once… that you weren’t a hero. There were times I didn’t even think you were human…”
Through his career, whether out of humility or a genuine belief, de Villiers has been at pains to distance himself from the hyperbole of being a hero, or more than human. He has given cricket miracles of shot-making that the game didn’t know it needed before he arrived.
We know now that Holmes came back. Superheroes – and Holmes was/is one even if mortal – always come back. Regardless of what the Thanoses of the universe might do. The cricketing world has spent several years calling de Villiers a magician, or Superman. Virat Kohli added a Spiderman during IPL 2018.
So, AB: “One more miracle” please. Don’t be gone. And let this be a magician’s trick of making something disappear only for it to reappear. Christopher Nolan – another one who knows a bit about creating Superheroes – told us in The Prestige that for magicians, “making something disappear isn’t enough; you have to bring it back. That’s why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call ‘The Prestige’.”
If life were a movie script, it would be convenient (for everyone apart from anti-corruption officers).
De Villiers would decide after a month that a resurrection was needed, that the 2019 World Cup was too important to miss, that he had been in prime form in the Test series’ just before the IPL, and that the final tilt at the World Cup windmill was one worth making.
But this is not a movie. The last memory that de Villiers will leave us with during a World Cup is of a wrenching semifinal loss. The man who could bend the laws of nature and reality to his will, broken by nature’s intervention and the considerations of reality at Eden Park in March 2015. De Villiers had hit 65 not out off 45. He had been on 60, and batting like he could score 100 more in the overs left, when the rain came down with South Africa 216 for 3 in 38 overs, shortening the innings to 43 overs. Would New Zealand have found it as easy to chase a target in the 330-340 region, which looked likely, had the rain stayed away? We will never know. And we won’t get a chance at a redemption sequel either now.
The enduring image of de Villiers’s international career might well be the captain with moist eyes, having suffered a shattering loss and being as dignified as was humanly, or superhumanly, possible in defeat. But still, in defeat.
It shouldn’t be so. De Villiers pushed the boundaries of what you thought was possible with a bat more than any other player. And not just with 360-degree strokeplay, but with 360-minutes blockathons too. Never has one player shown the capacity to swing from the dead-batting of Adelaide 2012 and Delhi 2015 to the free-swinging Johannesburg and Sydney 2015. And it’s not just those extremes he inhabited. He could dominate without going berserk, in controlled fashion too. He did it in his 100th Test at Bangalore. He did it against Australia in Port Elizabeth in a series-changing century. He could change a Test seamlessly, like he did against India in Cape Town and Centurion, with a counter-attack that nobody else on the field could contemplate, much less execute.
That is perhaps what makes his walking away so much more difficult to digest. Against India and Australia, he had sparkled. It was his return to Test whites after a self-imposed exile, and it was as if he spent that year donning whites and secretly practicing against a bowling machine. He had even said after the series had been won against India that he felt he was “in the best form of his life” at the time. Dammit, he had even said “I feel very fresh”.
What exactly happened to change that diametrically in a few months, which included a long-cherished home series win against Australia and personally another good season for Royal Challengers Bangalore, we may never know.
De Villiers has already said that, “I mean no disrespect to anyone who has ever achieved that – but it means absolutely zero to me to achieve 10,000 runs. I don’t care about that at all.” So ending with 8765 Test runs and 9577 ODI runs might not really mean much. But his departure does leave you feeling incomplete, as if the play has ended before the final curtain – and not because of the runs tally.
It is an anti-climatically tame end to a career that has seared itself into cricketing history because of audacity. But while leaving us wanting more, paradoxically, de Villiers has also left us with a memory-bank of magic.
If you go by aggregates, de Villiers isn’t at the top in either format. If you go by major trophies won, his cupboard is quite bare. If you go by the maxim that a player ought to be available to help his team win a trophy the country has dreamed of but fallen heartbreakingly short several times – especially if you are a player who can potentially deliver that trophy – then de Villiers has done his team an injustice.
But if you ignore all that and simply focus on which batsman gave you joy, which one made you willingly suspend disbelief most often, which one redefined the art of batting for you, and which one you would drop everything else to just watch regardless of match and tournament situations – then there is only one moniker for AB de Villiers. The Greatest.