“I’m taking it one game at a time. My ultimate dream is not to win a World Cup. I’ve changed my mindset. I feel it will be nice to win it, it’ll be a bonus, but if I don’t, it’s not going to define my career.” - AB de Villiers, 2018.
“I’ve long given up that it needs to end in a fairy tale. I don’t need to be ranked No 1 or need it to be after a big title. If it happens that way, that’s amazing. But you can’t control it all.” - Roger Federer, 2018.
There is much to learn and interpret from those two quotes from two athletes who are considered to be one of the greatest to have graced their respective sports, and often referred to, in awe, as being superhuman. Some would even say they were living proof that possibilities in a sporting arena are meant to be redefined.
And yet, they know, deep down, that all things will come to an end and very few, history says, get to choose when and how. As it turns out, AB de Villiers has bid adieu to cricket without a World Cup medal around his neck and a farewell celebration to boot.
De Villiers’ retirement, shocking as the timing was given how well he was playing in the IPL, has been in the air for a while. Ever since the disappointment of 2015 World Cup, news of his retirement from one format or all has been doing the rounds.
But the wording of his retirement announcement requires another reading.
“After 114 Test matches, 228 ODIs and 78 T20 Internationals, it is time for others to take over. I have had my turn, and to be honest, I am 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.”
Tired. Arguably the greatest all-format batsman of this generation, has retired while still playing cricket at a very high level, has decided to call it quits, because he is tired. Yes, he is 34. Yes, he has had his fair share of injuries lately. But to come to a point where he, who’s pride for playing for the Proteas has been evident, cites tiredness as the reason – and a definitive one at that, he didn’t leave any room for interpretation - the cricket world should sit up and take notice.
A day after his best mate drops the bombshell, news emerges of Virat Kohli missing his highly-anticipated county cricket stint with Surrey, in preparation for the upcoming England tour. When the decision was announced that Kohli will head to England early, skipping the Test against Afghanistan, one thing was certain. The 29-year-old is driven by an obsession to right his record against England on their shores. 130-odd runs in 10 Test innings from his horror 2014 tour still comes up in every detailed interview he does. It is his Holy Grail and he was willing to put his body through the grind in order to set the record straight.
Yes, the neck injury could have happened at any point but the fact is that a modern cricketer, one who is especially good across three formats as Kohli and de Villiers undoubtedly are, doesn’t have an off-season anymore. Over the years, the amount of cricket played has only increased and if you could point a finger on where that boom began, it would be circa 2008, when the IPL came into existence.
The concept of a scheduled break slowly started going out of existence. Off-season was replaced with ‘rest’ periods, mostly to recover from injuries and occasionally pre-empting a burn-out, like with Kohli at the end of last year. A look at the spike in the games played during a calendar year below tells you the story.
While Kohli has only recently started cherry-picking when to play and when to rest, de Villiers has been at it for South Africa ever since the World Cup in Australia. That he is revered across the cricketing fraternity is in no doubt, but you would not have too tough a time finding a South African bit miffed about the uncertainty and mixed messages coming from de Villiers himself. Will he? Won’t he?
Sure, there are other factors here at play. De Villiers is 34, had a couple of serious injuries, and there was seemingly a constant undercurrent of tension in the recent past over the preferential treatment he was getting. You would think he has earned that over the years.
While he made it clear in his statement, he wasn’t keen on picking and choosing, and for him it’s everything or nothing in the green and gold, it’s still a little disheartening that he walked away with the next World Cup around the corner, despite having the leeway to unburden himself.
For Kohli, and other superstar cricketers in India and around the world, this situation is nearly replicable. After playing non-stop till November last year for a couple of seasons preceding it, Kohli came out and said he is human after all and needs to keep an eye on his own workload. And when you consider he played through not-so-crucial tournaments and bilateral series in that period, his body has given him a warning sign ahead of the tour he has been desperate to do well at.
That’s the life of a professional athlete - there are certain things, like Federer and many before have put it, that one cannot control. The uncertainty comes with the territory. While it’s more manageable in an individual capacity, team sport has different dynamics involved.
What de Villiers’ retirement and Kohli’s workload tells us, is this: cricket has a responsibility towards its stars. The game is, of course, bigger than an individual, but it’s enriched by their presence and thrives on their potential. A failure to acknowledge that and take better care of the athletes could mean athleplaying the game could mean more shock decisions that sees players quit. And that will be a shame.