AB de Villiers’ indifferent attitude throughout the tournament filtered down to the rest of the team.
What you see is what you get from Steve Smith in his press conferences. If the Australian captain is unhappy with the way one of his players performed, he’ll tell you. If he’s unhappy with the opposition, he’ll tell you. Hell, he’ll even tell you when he thinks the groundsman hasn’t done his job properly.
Sometimes it comes across as bitter and brattish, but at least he gives the media and the public a glimpse of what’s going on behind the scenes.
De Villiers is the infuriatingly frustrating opposite. It wasn’t just his lack of comprehensive answers to anything the South African media asked him throughout the tournament, but it was his body language too. He was dismissive, defensive and generally disengaged to largely unthreatening questions. There was a hint of betrayal when he couldn’t provide a more detailed explanation to yet another failed campaign at a major tournament.
If that’s his approach to press conferences, then what is it like in the dressing room? We don’t know the extent of how effective he is as a leader behind the scenes. What we do know is that he’s a phenomenal player and he undoubtedly has the respect of his players. But what we can see on the field isn’t entirely reassuring.
He had the chance to go for the jugular against Pakistan with Morne Morkel’s tail up, but he brought back Wayne Parnell instead and Pakistan eased ahead of the DLS par score. And when defending 191 against India, the side looked disconsolate. When Rohit Sharma hit Kagiso Rabada for consecutive boundaries in the third over, the game was already finished. The Proteas should have come out firing, but the belief and energy just didn’t seem to be there.
There was an optional training session for the Proteas two days before the India match. Only three players decided to go – Dwaine Pretorius, Keshav Maharaj and Parnell. Should AB not have been setting the example and getting his troops back in the nets? Batting coach Neil McKenzie mentioned that day that the players have the freedom to manage themselves. They were poor against Pakistan and there should have been a few more in those nets at Lord’s.
Du Plessis, often seen to be the one calling the shots throughout the three matches, and more transparent and efficient with his words during the pressers, captured the mood during that game by comparing it to the semi-final exit two years ago. ‘2015 was the lowest point of my career because I thought that was our time. Today I don’t feel the same; we just rocked up and it wasn’t there.’ That’s not the attitude you want at a major tournament. The captain’s attitude reflects that of the team; De Villiers’ indifference filtered down to the rest.
Sure, there’s more to it. Virat Kohli dangled that carrot for the media when he said that he ‘knows what he’s going through’. It’s been over said now, but deciding when and when not to play Test matches is deplorable. Russell Domingo said that lots of players choose which format they play in, but I think he’s referring to the players that retire.
De Villiers hasn’t officially retired from Tests. Not only is it unsettling for the rest of the players who look up to him as the senior man in the setup, but it creates an unprecedented hierarchy that suggests that he’s entitled to make those kinds of decisions for himself due to who he is. The normal working man with 10-15 years of experience can’t just decide that he’s not going to rock up to work on Wednesdays because of his previous service to the company.
In De Villiers, we have an extraordinary player, and when he said ‘absolutely’ to playing in two years’ time, there was a collective sigh of relief in the press conference room that we will get to see one of the best players in the world continue to be a part of that middle-order. But it’s going to take some extraordinary leadership to get the Proteas to the 2019 World Cup final. I can’t see how it’s going to be any different to our group-stage exit here, if the current situation remains.
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