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DANIEL GALLAN: AB de Villiers, the one that got away

OPINION

How will you remember AB de Villiers? In fifty years time, when your hair has left you and your knees have gone, how will you speak of one of cricket’s greats when croaking memories to your grandchildren?

No doubt you’ll eulogise his batting. At his best few others in history can claim to be his equal. Forget about runs scored or averages accumulated. When it came to the art of batting, de Villiers was a virtuoso.

He earned his nickname Mr 360 because he rewrote the manual with a repertoire of genius stroke-play that had never been seen before. He crouched down on one knee and hit wide half volleys over fine leg. He pulled rising bouncers off the front through midwicket. He dug out yorkers by contorting his body to drive flashing drives past cover. He cut and flicked and biffed and bashed every bowler on the planet and he did so in a manner that took your breath away.

Have you ever heard someone who isn’t a cricket fan tell you that they just don’t understand the sport’s appeal? That’s not a bug, that’s a feature. This stuffy English past-time rooted in Victoria’s empire was invented in a time that predates the modern world. Its tea breaks and all white dresses and antiquated chivalry have endured because cricket snobs revel in its complexities and hard to digest foibles.

Cricket fans, especially devotees of the five-day game, do not consume sport the way supporters of rugby or football do. They are sports equivalent of the whiskey aficionado swirling around a drink that the uninitiated couldn’t contemplate swallowing.

But De Villiers transcended all that. With a bat in hand, he was able to stir something primal in you. With every flash of the blade, he reached into the soul and tugged on the animalistic ID. Involuntary sounds escaped when he meddled one. You couldn’t look away. You wanted more. You needed more. Like a junkie jonesing for a fix, you’d fork out large sums of cash in pursuit of just the chance of more.

Last year de Villiers told us that he had nothing more to give. He said that time away from his family and the pressures of representing so much to so many people had drained him. A year out from the World Cup he bade farewell to disbelieving followers via an Instagram video.

Only, he never really left. Sure, he called time on his international career but there he was representing the Rangpur Riders in Bangladesh. Then over there in Pakistan paddle sweeping for the Lahore Qalanders. Fans continued to chant his name in Bangalore where he continued to cement his cult status for the Royal Challengers. In February it was announced that he’d be joining Middlesex in England’s T20 Blast.

What to make of this? Was it something we said? Was it something we did? Breakups are hard. Seeing your former lover move on faster than you’d have liked is even harder. We try and make sense of rejection and hurt. We cycle through stages of grief and anger and resentment until we finally accept that it wasn’t meant to be.

Then the phone rings and you see a familiar number. Your former lover wants in just as your current relationship - the one you’ve committed to and have invested so much - is going through a rocky time. What to make of this?

AB de Villiers would walk into this South African team. Let’s not kid ourselves otherwise. Even at 35, he is the best South African cricketer on the planet. Slot in him at four or five in the batting line up and the injuries to bowlers or the struggles at the top of the order become less of a headache for Faf du Plessis and Ottis Gibson.

De Villiers turns this team from one that was always going to have to play out of their boots to make the semi-finals into one that could, on their day, upset the favourites and actually win it.

That is why this hurts so much. We could have been so good together. So what if it would only last the summer? A few months of bliss and a lifetime of memories always trumps lonely nights in and regrets of what could have been.

De Villiers must have known this. That is the only explanation for him reneging on his decision to retire. We do not yet know exactly when de Villiers contacted his lifelong mate du Plessis and asked to be a late inclusion in his World Cup squad. A week before the squad announcement? The night before? The morning of? It doesn’t matter. He was sorry for what he did. He knew how badly he’d behaved. Couldn’t he just have one last chance?

Poor du Plessis. What was going through his mind the second the question was asked. What an impossible position he now had to navigate. Any captain wants the best players available. Part of de Villiers’ slide was precipitated by the debacle surrounding the selection of Vernon Philander over Kyle Abbott under his watch on the eve of the 2015 semi-final against New Zealand.

But du Plessis had also espoused a feeling of togetherness in the squad. #ProteaFire meant more than a social media hook. Players like Aiden Markram and Rassie van der Dussen had put in the hard yards, had scored the runs asked of them and had undergone the initiation rights to earn their place in the 15 man squad on merit. To take that away from them within sight of the crowning moment of their careers would be cruel.

And du Plessis is not cruel. He is a just, fair man. He looks you in the eye when answering tough questions. He is honest in his assessment of his team’s performances. On the surface, his chiselled torso and piercing eyes portray an ice-cold leader but there is a softness to the Proteas skipper and he would not abandon the principles that had got him the job, even for his best friend and a player he so desperately needed.

For that du Plessis deserves praise. With van der Dussen injured, the Proteas now find themselves a batsmen light in a tournament where a lack of runs have proved their Achilles heel. Defeat to the West Indies on Monday would all but confirm South Africa’s elimination from a tournament yet to reach its halfway mark.

How will I remember AB de Villiers? That depends which AB de Villiers you refer to.

I’ll remember the 149 against the West Indies where he registered a century off just 31 balls and sent a frothing Wanderers crowd into a frenzy. I’ll remember the 106 not-out in Perth that landed the first blow in his nation’s first ever Test series victory against Australia. I’ll remember his 91 at Centurion where he stood up to Mitchell Johnson at his peak when all others folded in the wake of the most devastating fast bowling I’d ever seen. Johnson would later tell me that de Villiers was the best he ever bowled to. He was only confirming what I already knew.

Now, sadly, I’ll also remember de Villiers as the one that got away. The player who delivered so much over 14 years as an international cricketer and yet still left me wanting. We may never see his like again. All we ever wanted was to see him one last time.

Daniel Gallan is a freelance cricket correspondent for Eyewitness News based in the UK. Follow him on Twitter @danielgallan

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