Without a timely intervention from the then Pakistan President General Zia-ul-Haq, the country’s greatest cricketing moment may not have happened.
Imran Khan, their talismanic superstar, was a man of his words. After taking his country to the semi-finals of the 1987 World Cup, he hung up his boots, consistent with his earlier announcement before the tournament. But, as he recounts in his autobiography Pakistan: A Personal History, he had not contended with a persuasive head of state.
“He asked me on live television to come back out of retirement for the sake of the country, I agreed,” the current Prime Minister of Pakistan recounted.
The rest, as we know, is history – a smorgasbord of Pakistani brilliance, cornered tigers and the image of a sweaty Imran Khan lifting the glittering 1992 World Cup in Melbourne.
A diminished legacy
It is a memory worth recollecting, a point of comparison even, to Abraham Benjamin de Villiers’ own legacy which may not be in danger of being tarnished, but is certainly losing the saintly halo it once possessed.
De Villiers is without a doubt among the most revolutionary athletes the game has ever produced. With that cricket bat, he’s pushed boundaries and set new frontiers of batsmanship, leaving behind the sort of impact few others, even with better numbers, can boast of having.
But things aren’t as hunky-dory anymore. In fact, they haven’t been so for the last couple of years.
The recent revelation that South Africa’s selectors had to contend with a late request from AB De Villiers to come back to the team for the 2019 World Cup throws up a lot of questions.
The fact that this happened on the backdrop of a two-year-long soap opera where De Villiers teased the entire cricketing world with his ‘I’ll-play-I-won’t-play’ drama followed by a shock retirement nobody expected in 2018, just adds to a sort of unravelling which few really expected.
It was in 2017 when De Villiers ruled himself out of South Africa’s upcoming tour of England. This began a trend of him choosing and playing some matches for which he received muted criticism from various quarters.
After more than year out, he returned to the Test team and played some career-defining knocks in two tough series against India and Australia at home. Yet just a year away from the World Cup, a time when teams start locking in their personnel and plans for the grand event, De Villiers announced a shock retirement from all international cricket in May 2018, stating revealingly, “I have had my turn, and to be honest, I am tired”.
‘I am very happy to have stepped away’
That was a year ago. Later in an interview, the South African great also revealed that the constant snipes that he was picking and choosing the matches to play in did play a part in his decision to retire. Which brings us to today and now.
The biggest question that one has to ask is: What changed, AB?
Retirement can’t be an easy step to take, but it genuinely seemed that he had come to terms with it.
“I am very happy to have stepped away. Absolutely no regrets,” he confidently proclaimed in an interview with The Independent in August 2018.
And just in case, you hadn’t got the message, he made it even clearer in another interview two months later: “No, there is no comeback. I certainly do not want to confuse anyone around the world, especially the Proteas team. It will be very selfish and arrogant of me to throw statements around that I want to play at the World Cup.”
Except…that was exactly what he went on to do.
According to the ESPNCricinfo report, he didn’t even give the South African team management much time. Only 24 hours before South Africa’s selectors announced their final 15-man squad for the World Cup, they were told by ABD that he was, in fact, available for the World Cup.
Just not the ABD way
South Africa’s selectors turned him down.
“We had to be fair to the team, the selection panel, our franchise system and players,” said Linda Zondi, Cricket South Africa’s selection panel convener, responding to the ABD reports. “We have to stay true to our morals and principles”.
As much as you and I would have loved to see AB De Villiers provide one last hurrah in England, as much as we would have loved to see him add some much-needed steel and pizzazz to this deflated Proteas unit, can you really find fault with the selectors?
What should they have done? Go to a Rassie van der Dussen and tell him, “Sorry, mate, you’ve played well and you were in the team for the World Cup. But De Villiers has just had another change of heart and now he wants to play the World Cup. And even though you’ve earned your place, you’re going out and he’s coming in.”
There comes a time when a team, any team, must decide on a trade-off. Ultimately, which is more important? Team spirit? The collective? A shared goal? How well the team bonds? Or is it only the results, the raw numbers, that count?
There is no guarantee that had AB De Villiers been part of the World Cup squad, South Africa would have performed any better. Cricket is after all and perhaps thankfully, a team game when individual brilliance can often swing games but may not be enough to win tournaments.
Perhaps South Africa might have competed better; they might have even won one of the three games they lost. But the trade-off might have been worse – a fractured, disgruntled team, aware that their one star player could ask for and receive anything.
Ask yourself, should any group of driven individuals aiming towards one common goal have to deal with this kind of a distraction? But ultimately, it comes down to the man himself.
Perhaps, we are all judging him wrongly. Perhaps, AB De Villiers’ greatest fault is that he is indecisive.
To beat him with that stick would be wrong – great players are human beings too, liable to have faults. Perhaps, AB De Villiers’s last-minute desire to come back and play the World Cup arose from deep-rooted desperation to win his beloved Proteas that one trophy they have always coveted. He meant no harm and he only wanted to help.
But just 24 hours before the squad announcement? No, AB, no. For a player with such amazing touch, your timing was all wrong.