AB de Villiers’ Test ambitions were thwarted by injury © AFP
No-one wanted to be South Africa’s Test captain more than AB de Villiers. He said so himself,here , more than two years ago when he was overlooked in favour of Hashim Amla as South Africa sought a new leader after a decade of Graeme Smith.
Moving on was never going to be easy. Smith was an overarching presence, broad as a blue gum tree, under which a new leader would find it difficult to grow. Johan Botha sprouted briefly, leading South Africa’s T20 and ODI side when Smith was injured, but can you even name Smith’s vice-captain? No? It’s as though he didn’t need one.
That’s why when he was gone everyone was underprepared to be South Africa’s next Test captain, especially de Villiers. He had never led at any level before international. Not at school, where Faf du Plessis was preferred, not at domestic level, where he only spent a small amount of time before being promoted to the biggest stage, not at the IPL, even though Ray Jennings had initially pushed for de Villiers to take charge of Royal Challengers Bangalore. But de Villiers was the ODI captain and he probably thought that put him in a strong position to take over at Test level. In fact, it did the opposite.
It took de Villiers so long to come to terms with the additional responsibility that South Africa had to relieve him of the wicket-keeping duties in short formats. Even then, he continued to rack up over-rate violations because he spent too much time having council meetings over what to do in the field. He did not display the tactical acumen of a Test captain and so even though Amla was reluctant, he was asked to do it instead.
De Villiers probably did not intend to throw the proverbial tantrum in response and he may not even have realised he was doing it but he spent most of last summer making it clear he was not happy. He complained about overwork, he stressed that he would have to find ways to manage the packed schedule and, in the middle of that, when Amla stood down because he could not take the pressure any more, he temporarily took on the captaincy. Then, he gave South Africa his complete commitment. Little did he know, he would not be able to fulfil it.
Since being named as permanent Test captain, de Villiers had not played a Test. He missed the New Zealand series in August because of an elbow injury which was aggravated at the Caribbean Premier League but he did not undergo surgery because he hoped conservative treatment would fix it. By the time Australia arrived for ODIs in October, de Villiers had not recovered and the knife was the only option. That would put him out of the Australia Tests but it was a sacrifice he had to make.
In the meantime, South Africa had to find someone else and they could not go back to Amla. Their options were limited to two out of form batsmen – Faf du Plessis and JP Duminy – who had taken turns being dropped during the England series. With du Plessis already leading in the T20 format, they chose him. And the team chose him. And the critics chose him. And before long everyone was calling on du Plessis to stay on.
He captained with a calmness that de Villiers never had. He had the confidence of his players, who rallied behind him so hard they even defended him against ball-tampering charges. He came good as a player, scoring a hundred in the series-win over New Zealand and another under pressure in Australia.
The only complication was that de Villiers would one day come back and everyone from the convener of selectors, Linda Zondi, to the spearhead of the attack, Dale Steyn, endorsed his return to the captaincy. They did not leave room for what de Villiers had been going through in the interim.
His elbow has not healed and will keep him out for at least another month. That means he would have missed three successive Test series and not just any three, the three South Africa are using to start climbing the rankings again. The team has moved on without him. Although it is difficult to imagine even momentarily considering leaving de Villiers out of an XI, it is also difficult to imagine where he would fit in at the moment, never mind as captain. And therein lies the next discussion.
When will de Villiers play Test cricket for South Africa again? If all goes to plan, perhaps in the March series against New Zealand but who would he replace then? Duminy has been spoken of as the obvious choice because he does not consistently produce and there is also suggestion one of the openers may make way but there are problems with both solutions.
South Africa have transformation targets to meet and Quinton de Kock – who is most likely to be moved up – has already said he does not want to open long-term. That’s a puzzle for another day and it’s not unthinkable that de Villiers will solve it himself, as he has done this time.
For all his own desires, de Villiers would have seen that the team had progressed under du Plessis, he would have known that consistency is crucial to continued success and he would have understood what that meant for him, without having to be told. The truth is that no-one has professed their love for South Africa more than de Villiers and in stepping down, he proved that if you really love something, you can let it go.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo’s South Africa correspondent
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Source: ESPN Crickinfo