Early in August, after England administered a 3-1 Test-series defeat to South Africa, cricket fans in the African Republic would likely have uttered a prayer or made a wish for the return of AB de Villiers.

Their batting had been inadequate. In eight innings, they went past 350 only once, and scored below 250 four times. At the top of the series averages stood Vernon Philander at 44.25, though his main vocation was a fast bowler of immaculate length and direction. Hashim Amla, 41.12, was the only other batsman who managed to push up above 40, and for him that was something of an underachievement.

A dose of AB, therefore, would have done South Africa’s underperforming batting a world of good. In fact, the batting maestro, arguably the best in the game not that long ago, would be a welcome addition of any batting line-up in any team in history.

Will he or won’t he?

He last played a Test in January 2016, when South Africa hosted England at Super Sport Park in Centurion. Initially absent due to an elbow injury that required surgery, de Villiers seemed reluctant to return to cricket’s longest format after recovery, much to the disappointment of those who wished to see him again in whites. And so, his recent announcement that he will soon be available for all formats was welcome news, not only for South African cricket but to all who enjoy the work of a true batting artist.

In his statement, the batsman spoke of his efforts to manage his workload, being “mentally and physically tired,” and refuted claims of disloyalty. “This strategy (of managing his workload),” remarked de Villiers, “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.”

In a way, it is sad that the great batsman has felt the need to defend his loyalty to his country. He has record as impressive as any in the game, and has played 106 Tests, 222 One-Day Internationals and 76 Twenty20 Internationals. There must have been some dedication to his craft and to his country for him to have racked up those numbers.

The tyranny of fame

One lesson to be learnt from this is how demanding we are as fans. Many of us seem to believe that players, especially the ones we rate highly, belong to us and should somehow follow the path we have chosen for them. We only recognize their need for self-actualisation when it does not conflict with our desire to have them perform for our entertainment.

They are there for our pleasure and should do everything to ensure they are able to perform for us as often and for as long as we want them to. Physical injury we are willing to forgive, but we often have less patience for a player missing in action due to issues like mental impairment, fatigue, or simply a lack of desire to play. We sometimes fail to realise that, just like us, players are responsible for making their own decisions about matters that affect their own lives.

The cover of Marcus Trescothick's autobiography where he spoke out about the depression that afflicted his playing career. (Image credit: Amazon UK)

Frequently, our first consideration is the void the player’s absence will leave. On tour to Australia for 2006-2007 Ashes series, Marcus Trescothick fell victim to mental troubles that prevented him from continuing. An important player to the team at the time, it was a big loss. Steve Harmison, who had mental difficulties of his own, revealed in Speed Demons, his autobiography, that he found himself wondering, “What are we going to do without Tres?” But the towering fast bowler quickly caught himself and regretted entertaining such a thought. “Immediately, I felt bad. I knew that wasn’t the right thing to be thinking. I should have been thinking more about what a bad way he was in.”

We all loved watching Brian Lara bat. Many of us in the Caribbean were convinced the left-hander wielded the most exciting blade in the game. Fairly early in his career, however, he had a few problems with the West Indies cricket authorities and opted out of a tour to Australia. We were angry. The Trinidadian was willful, selfish, we thought. “Doesn’t he realise how much hope we all had invested in him? Doesn’t he know that much of the West Indies’ hopes of success rested on his youthful shoulders?”

Unreasonable demands

But it is clear we had no real concern for Lara – no concern for the troubles he might have been experiencing; no concern for his well-being. We were thinking about ourselves — the excitement we’d be missing; the losses we were more likely to suffer because of his absence. We were the selfish ones.

Jon Stewart of The Daily Show fame, loves baseball and was a big fan of Dwight “Doc” Gooden and Darryl Strawberry. But both had problems with alcohol and drugs which detracted from their play and their time on the field. “I feel strange being upset,” Stewart said, “that I wasn’t able to witness as much of their greatness as I should have. That’s probably not my heartache to have. That’s theirs. And if they’re at peace with it, well certainly the fanbase can live to fight another day.”

Kieron Pollard has made his name, playing for various franchises in Twenty20 leagues around the world. (Image credit: IANS)

There is currently some anger directed towards a few senior players in the West Indies who appear to place more emphasis on playing in the various Twenty20 competitions that have popped up over the world than in representing the region. This is a somewhat understandable state of affairs since being a T20 gun-for-hire is a lucrative endeavor. We all want to see the best players playing at the highest levels. But deciding when and what format to play is the player’s decision to make – not ours.

The authorities may have eligibility rules that have to be complied with to gain selection, but it is the players who ultimately decide what is best for their himself and their family. That is always the case, whether we’re talking about players choosing the IPL over representing their country or players choosing to go the Kolpak route – like South Africans have done lately – thereby making them ineligible for national representation.

We all concur that those who get to play sport for a living are very fortunate. If only we were good enough to play the games we loved as children for good money, right? Professional athletes are rightly seen as being perched on a place of high privilege. And yet, they are men and women like the rest of us, with their own ideas of how they want to pursue their lives and careers. Like us they are beset by uncertainty and dither over decisions. That is their struggle as much as it is ours. We ought to respect that.

It is their right to plot their own path.

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