'If AB wanted to be here, he would be here' - Gibson

AB de Villiers’ name has evoked strong emotions from South African cricket fans following the revelation that he made a late request to join the World Cup.

FILE: Proteas head coach Ottis Gibson. Picture: AFP

LONDON - Just as Ottis Gibson was about to take his seat to fulfill his pre-match obligations with the media, he exchanged a quick laugh with Faf du Plessis who was scampering away after the conclusion of his training.

It was hard to discern exactly what was said but there was no mistaking the mention of the elephant in the room. AB de Villiers’ name has evoked strong emotions from South African cricket fans following the revelation that he made a late request to join the World Cup. In the wake of this untimely scandal, it was reassuring to see the Proteas coach and captain share a chuckle.

“No one has died,” Gibson reminded the gathered press. But despite the lack of a cadaver or a smoking gun, the briefing still felt more like a cross-examination at the high court than a conversation about a sports event.

When did de Villiers first reach out to Gibson? The evening before the squad announcement. Did Gibson consider his request? No, he did not. Has this put more pressure on his desperate batting unit who are short of runs and confidence? Not according to the coach who insists this has galvanised the players he has to step up and rediscover their pre World Cup form.

“When we played in South Africa, when we won eight out of ten games, no one was interested in de Villiers,” Gibson said. “Now that we’ve had a difficult week everyone is asking these questions.”

Gibson admitted that the news has come as a distraction but he also revealed that the leadership group was expecting it to surface at some stage.

According to Gibson, De Villiers had first reached out to du Plessis while the pair were competing in the IPL but both captain and coach shared the view that the door was closed since December when the Proteas hosted home ODI series against Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

“I suspect that there are a lot more people who want AB to be here than AB himself,” Gibson said. “If he wanted to be here, he would be here.”

According to Gibson, “the door was left open until December” when South Africa hosted and beat Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Like any other player, de Villiers needed to participate in these series if he wanted to be considered for selection.

Gibson continued: “Of course this comes as a distraction. The players are disappointed that this has come out when it has come out but we knew it could come up. It’s not going to change the way we play.”

Hopefully, for the Proteas’ sake, that won’t be the case. Change is needed. Three defeats to England, Bangladesh, and India have left Gibson presiding over South Africa’s worst ever run in the World Cup. They’re up against a West Indian team with an arsenal of bowlers who can crank it up past 140km/h and a batting line up that launches more successful missiles than the North Korean government.

“There are a lot of players there who can win matches,” Gibson said of his next opponents. “They’ve always had match winners. They’re dangerous. They’ve decided to go with an all-out attack with the way they’ve set up with four or five fast bowlers.”

Jason Holder’s quartet of quicks demolished Pakistan in there opening game, skirling them out for 105 inside 22 overs. Then against Australia, a frightening spell of short-pitched bowling had the men in yellow hopping and ducking for cover and in trouble at 79/5 until Steve Smith came to the rescue.

With the promise of another onslaught, there is no doubt that Gibson would love to have de Villiers. But Gibson is a man of principle and has no regrets about the way events have unfolded.

“I don’t think you should have to beg a guy to play for his country,” Gibson said. “The day [de Villiers] called me to say he would retire I told him I thought he was making a bad decision, that he could help us win the World Cup. He said he made his decision and it was time to spend time with his family and that was the end of that really.”

Gibson made mention of Chris Gayle, the West Indian senior statesman who has taken several International sabbaticals overs the years but never officially retired. “I can’t recall in recent history a team picking a guy that’s retired.”

Gibson left the press conference joking that he felt battered and bruised. The former fast bowler fronted up to a barrage of tough questions about a man not in the squad. All he wanted to do was talk about the men he does have. A win on Monday might go some way to fixing that.