AB de Villiers may have seen today’s crunch, must-win fixture against the West Indies looming because he was eager at the beginning of the week to say how much he and his team enjoyed “pressure situations”.
Australia’s thumping win against the hosts on Tuesday makes today’s final group-stage match of the Triangular series a straight knock-out for a place in the final against Australia at the Kensington Oval in Barbados on Sunday.
If the captain can rise to the occasion and help guide his team to the final, and even win it, his long rehabilitation process and reacquired love of one-day international (ODI) cricket will have taken another significant step forwards. He has hidden it as expertly as he dismisses the bowling of the worlds’ best.
Well over a year ago, De Villiers’s management team issued a press release announcing that his life story would be published in time for Christmas shoppers. Not only did it never materialise but no explanation was offered for its nonappearance.
Perhaps the ghost writer defaulted, or the publishing contract was contested. Or perhaps, following the disappointment of the World Cup, he changed his mind. The Proteas captain diligently wrote a daily diary during the tournament and his faith in his team’s success was as absolute as his belief in himself.
His intention was to record a personal account of the journey to becoming world champions with the proceeds being split between a charity of his choice and, perhaps, his great friend Mark Boucher’s campaign to protect the country’s rhinos.
He felt defeat after the semifinal as hard as any captain has ever done in a team sport but there was worse to come in the months afterwards. Far from beginning the healing process in the aftermath, the great batsman struggled to emerge from the shadows of failure.
Just as Gary Kirsten and Paddy Upton had spoken for two years of “when”, not “if”, the Indian team would win the 2011 World Cup, they did the same with De Villiers and the Proteas when they took over as coaches. De Villiers needs no extra help to imagine success, but the image of him holding the -trophy aloft in front of 100 000 people at the Melbourne Cricket Ground was ingrained. He knew it was his destiny.
He was the man in charge and in control. He knew there would be hiccups and hurdles along the way, but he was emphatic in his conviction that he would lead the team to glory – if they could just make the final.
It wasn’t the loss in itself that refused to go away, it was the fact that he felt control of his – and the team’s – destiny had been wrested from him on the eve of the semifinal when he was unable to take the field with his players of choice. It wasn’t a matter of the personnel, it was a matter of principle that took so long for De Villiers to recover from.
When he spoke of “uncertainty” about his future before and during the England series over the New Year, he was simply being honest. He was not widely supported, including in these pages.
When the team needed a strong leader to be the rock and say the right things, the captain was still fragile. When he should have been -appreciated and supported, his unwavering commitment to his country was questioned.
For those cynics who thought the motive was money, it may be instructive to learn that De Villiers could earn about R40-million a year as a “free agent” at today’s rates.
His Proteas national contract earns him R3-million, supplemented by the R15-million a year from the Indian Premier League, of course. In a few weeks’ time, he will start his inaugural Caribbean Premier League tournament with the Barbados Tridents at a fee of about R6-million.
“I remain 100% committed to international cricket with the Proteas but it just so happens that I can play in the CPL this year,” De Villiers said when he signed up.
It was absolutely true. But he is not, and will never be able to speak the truth about what happened during the 2015 World Cup, which was supposed to have defined his record and legacy as a player and captain.
For now, baby steps are still required. The captain and genius batsman still gets the greatest kicks out of playing the game and winning, and there can be no doubt about his love and desire to play for his -country, but the scar tissue from the last World Cup won’t disappear for a long time.
Just as every miner, plumber and accountant needs something to look forward to, cricketers need more than just “the next game”. Especially elite cricketers. De Villiers is the elite of the elite. He needs the best of the best to excite him.
When the 2015 World Cup ended, he was convinced his career and desire had gone with it.
If the Proteas win today, and compete in the final, De Villiers may have taken his firmest step on the road to the 2019 World Cup. It was unimaginable when they lost at Auckland’s Eden Park in March last year. He was beyond devastated. He even said “no way” when asked about the next World Cup.
But “no way” is often the “next way” in sport. For the elite.