TELFORD VICE Cape Town
YOU want a Ferrari. Do you need a Ferrari? The question seems simple but, as we discovered, the answer is not.
The South African test team is you. The Ferrari is AB de Villiers.
Of course you want that Ferrari.
Or, as Ray Jennings said, “Any side that doesn’t want AB de Villiers must be absolutely bonkers.”
But whether South Africa need De Villiers as a test player was a question that struggled to be understood, much less answered.
Despite his absence with an elbow injury South Africa have won six of their eight tests and lost only one.
They might have had a perfect record had De Villiers played in those matches, or they might not have been as successful against stronger opponents in better form.
But it’s difficult to ignore the looming truth that South Africa have found a way to win without Graeme Smith, Jacques Kallis, Mark Boucher and, yes, AB de Villiers.
Under Faf du Plessis’ captaincy, with a top order steadied by Dean Elgar and solidified by Hashim Amla and a middle order powered by Quinton de Kock, an attack spearheaded by Kagiso Rabada and taken to another level by Vernon Philander, South Africa have rebuilt themselves.
The relevance of all that came into sharp relief when it emerged that the Ferrari you thought was yours might not want to be in your garage every day of the week.
First De Villiers withdrew his availability for the test series in New Zealand in March.
Fine. South Africa should have the measure of the Kiwis without him.
The same goes for him opting out of the home series against Bangladesh in September. No Ferrari required.
But the four tests in England in July and August will be the most searching examination yet for this South African team.
Fire up the Ferrari …
Except that De Villiers has disconnected his battery for that series, too.
Jennings understood why: “There’s no doubt that he is the best in his business. His attitude, off the field, on the field, his fielding … You can’t replace his contribution. It’s not even a contest.
“But at different stages of your life you have different priorities. In sport you’re on a high for a certain amount of time and you get out of the game what you want – fame, finance or opportunity.
“Then, suddenly, you find yourself with a wife and a kid and your priorities start changing.”
Does De Villiers owe the game and, more pertinently, South Africans, more respect?
“Nobody, including South African cricket, owns AB de Villiers,” Jennings said. “He has his own life and his own value systems and he makes his own decisions. He has the right to take his life and energy where he wants.
“Why do people stop working at 60? Because they want to retire. Why? Because their value system changes.
“If AB doesn’t want to earn that kind of money and he doesn’t want to have his butt put in a hotel every second day, he’s got the right to make that call.
“He’s given world cricket a new dimension on how to play the game. He’s also brought a lot of happiness to the hearts of South Africans.”
But Jennings knew cricket was bigger than one player, even if that player was AB de Villiers.
“If Cricket South Africa (CSA) don’t like AB’s style of behaviour they must fire him,” he said.
“If, say, Dane Villas gets a few noughts and decides he doesn’t want to be part of the England series, CSA would say, ‘Pack your bags and get out’. But because it’s AB everybody goes boo.
“If CSA don’t like his thinking they must tell him to go to hell.
“If you put your hat on as a spectator you’d be pissed off. If you put your hat on as CSA you will probably be annoyed.
“But if you put your hat on as a human being you will understand that we don’t have the right to tell AB to play until he’s 40.
“If it’s attractive enough for AB to play test cricket – for instance, fly him in a personal plane because his family are with him and get his kids home schooling, and take away the fears that are in his heart – then he might do it.
“But, currently, he’s made the choice that it’s better for him to spend more time at home.
“The public have got to get off his back because he’s offered more than how many individuals in this country.”
Allan Donald, too, didn’t stop to consider the relative merits of whether South Africa wanted or needed De Villiers in their test team.
“The cricket world wants to see AB de Villiers,” Donald said “He’s made it very clear that it’s family and the travelling and various other things he’s considering, and he wants to adjust and not play as much cricket.
“But I still want to see AB de Villiers in a South African shirt, absolutely. And I’m pretty sure that guys playing for the Proteas at the moment would want to see AB back.
“I’ve spent so much time in that RCB (Royal Challengers Bangalore) changeroom and for (Virat) Kohli to continuously say that AB’s the best he’s ever seen means a lot.
“AB, in his humble self, always just shrugged that off. But that’s what he is; that’s how great he is.
“Everybody that’s watched him or played with him or against him will say that he is the finest cricketer they’ve seen in his generation in terms of what he does and how quickly he can shift the game with his pure genius.
“That’s what I’m missing at the moment: his genius. Nobody can tell me otherwise.
“I’m a massive De Villiers fan. Who isn’t? South Africa would love to have more of a piece of him before he settles down.
“But I can understand the stuff he’s saying; I’ve got great respect for that. But it will be sad if he decides enough is enough and he wants to focus on the 2019 World Cup.”
Unlike Jennings, Donald did get the chance to play test cricket. Time was when he would have wondered where South Africa’s next great fast bowler would come from. He was Allan Donald – who could possibly replace him? Now he knows.
“South Africa will miss him but as with everyone else – Kallis, Smith and those guys – they’ve moved on,” Donald said.
“Once the great ones move on the next ones follow, and that keeps happening. It’s funny how that works.”
Right. Where were we? Do South Africa need AB de Villiers in their test team?