Elite athletes are often rejuvenated by the challenge of proving their worth. That’s what we’re seeing with AB de Villiers, writes RYAN VREDE.
I was dismayed by the vile abuse De Villiers took when announcing his international retirement in 2018. In the most daft of the accusations, De Villiers’ patriotism was questioned. This for a man who had given the bulk of his adult life to the national cricketing cause.
Those with higher EQ levels understood when he said: ‘I had my turn and to be honest, I’m tired.’ Most of us will never fully understand the demands of elite-level sport. However, most can empathise with the physical and mental toll it exerts. De Villiers carried that for 14 years. It was a choice, yes, but it shouldn’t diminish his lived experience and, specifically, the cost of that experience.
We’ve all reached a point in our lives when we can no longer find the requisite motivation to continue doing something we once loved. De Villiers is no different. The fundamental difference is that a nation, and indeed our broader global professional fraternity, didn’t go into mourning when we decided to stop doing the thing we once loved.
The Proteas have never recovered from De Villiers’ retirement. I doubt they will soon. Hopefully the next De Villiers is playing club or school cricket right now and will ascend to international prominence in a couple of years. Given De Villiers’ once-in-a-generation gift, there’s a chance the next incarnation may not yet be born yet. Collectively we pray it’s the former scenario.
But our pain may be eased, albeit temporarily. In late 2019, De Villiers declared that he is open to an international return. He said he wants to prove his worth through performance, not be picked on the basis of past performance.
In my view, his 55* off 23 deliveries against the Mumbai Indians in late September was a show of readiness for a Proteas return. In the wake of that innings, I wrote that there is an international future for him if he wants it, and urged director of cricket Graeme Smith and Proteas head coach Mark Boucher to open discussions about such a return.
Then, on Saturday afternoon De Villiers wrote a Proteas manifesto.
To say his unbeaten 55 off 22 balls to win the match for Royal Challengers Bangalore was vintage AB would be misleading. His form has never dipped to the extent where one was forced to frame the quality of a performance by making reference to a more productive past. No, this was just AB.
I find it incredibly hard to articulate De Villiers’ brilliance. His gift is so rare that trying to describe its scope and majesty is near impossible. It is best watched with the volume dialled up to max, allowing the crash of leather on willow to be the soundtrack for a transcendent experience.
De Villiers needed a break from international cricket. At the time, his physical and mental condition made it feel like he needed something more permanent than a break. He wasn’t the first elite athlete to feel this way and he won’t be the last.
And like many elite athletes before him, De Villiers, rejuvenated by a two-year break from international cricket, is now on a mission to prove his worth in an international context. It’s irrelevant that the majority of the cricketing world doesn’t think he has to. Elite athletes, specifically those that are among the best in their codes, often engineer their reality to find levels of performance that drives them to a goal. Michael Jordan won countless basketball games for the Chicago Bulls this way. Cristiano Ronaldo has, too. As has Tom Brady, Tiger Woods and a clutch of others.
De Villiers is at that stratospheric level and he shares the ability to be driven by the goal of proving his worth, even if in reality there is nothing left to prove.
I’m grateful for athletes such as De Villiers and his ilk because the most impossibly brilliant performances are born from this state of mind. I indeed hope De Villiers still feels a desire to prove his worth. I’m happy for him to exist in this imagined reality, and then continue to do so once he wears the Proteas green again, which is surely inevitable now.