For the last 13 years, AB de Villiers has been nothing short of a sensation.
In many ways, he has been the face of the modern cricketer. He is not constrained by any limit to the range through which his bat can fire. Like a modern batsman, audacity to him is no fetter for temperament. He can rule the shorter formats, be a ridiculously dextrous exponent of the reverse-sweep, hit balls to uncanny, hitherto undiscovered corners of the ground, and at the same time perch very near the peak of Test cricket.
And for a long time, he has done all that while flying around behind the stumps, with the bigger gloves adorning his hands.
But at the same time, de Villiers is the face of the modern cricketer in another, more alarming manner. Something that has reached a crescendo now, as reports prophesise and fans fear that he will give up Test cricket altogether.
Modern cricketer that he is, de Villiers has to shuttle around the globe, switching between whites and colours, allegiances and atmosphere, dressing rooms and formats.
Perhaps the most important word here is perhaps ‘format’.
There are those who labour the point that cricketers of the past were as busy as the ones today, what with the county games being contested from May to September without a break, five or even six days a week, the better ones even having to play a few Tests in between.
True. The county pros were a hardened lot. But their travels were limited within the borders of England, and sometimes Wales. After the season they did take a break. Cricket had defined seasons, and between the different calendars in different parts of the world there were days that saw no action.
Besides, there is another point that is often overlooked. They played the same format, namely First-Class, and a limited number of one-day games after the 1960s. And the spotlight was not anywhere near this glaring.
Switching between formats is taxing, very taxing. It involves resetting your mind, re-tuning your reactions, recalibrating your approach. It is tiring in a way that goes way beyond physical fatigue.
One can experiment with blitz games in chess, switching between 1 minute, 5-minute and 30-minute matches, and going on in this way for about six hours. It will provide an idea of what such frequent adjustments can do to the mind. And then there is the matter of what the body goes through during high octane games, with the whole world watching every move that you make.
Let us look at what de Villiers did in 2015, the year before weariness had hit home.
He began the year playing a Test match against West Indies at Newlands. It was the third and final Test of the series, and de Villiers had played the first two as well in December.
This was followed by an ODI series against the same country.
The home engagements over, he flew to Australia and New Zealand for the ICC World Cup, playing 9 matches over a month and a bit.
The next engagement was in India, the annual circus of a month and a half called the IPL. Kolkata one day, Bangalore the next, Ahmedabad thereafter, onwards to Delhi, back to Bangalore … skirting through the huge country across Chennai to Mohali to Mumbai. Add to that the media madness and late night parties that are a part of the spectacle.
A month later, in early July, after a brief visit back home, he was in Bangladesh, donning national colours in a rather meaningless bilateral T20I series. He opted out of the three ODIs and two Tests, but there was no dearth of action that followed.
The next month, in August, New Zealand were in South Africa, playing a series of T20Is and then ODIs. And the following month, in September, de Villiers was back in India, this time with the national squad, playing the entire gamut of 2 T20Is, 5 ODIs and 4 Tests.
The weary team flew back in the first week of December and on Boxing Day there was de Villiers again, crouching behind the stumps as Dale Steyn fired in the first over of a new test series to Alastair Cook.
52 matches in the year, of varied formats, across different geographies.
Under the immense spotlight of international cricket and the arc-lights of the IPL tamasha.
The corporate franchises that one answers to in that sort of a tournament can be several times more demanding than Cricket South Africa. So can the fans of Royal Challengers Bangalore.
Something perhaps had to give.
His decision to hang up his whites, if we are to believe the reports, was formed after the 2015-16 season. However, the Board convinced him to carry on. Take a break and come back.
Yes, he took a break from the most taxing format of all. From the point of view of mental fatigue. Perhaps the shorter formats took less toll on physio-mental wellbeing, with the changes to approach remaining within manageable limits. Or perhaps he was finding Test cricket the least enjoyable as stress began to rear its uncomfortable head.
In 2015-16, de Villiers played 10 ODIs. He got 576 runs at 82.28 at a strike rate of 117.07 with 4 hundreds. But such feats were just a day or season in the office for him.
In 2015-16, he played 10 T20Is. He scored 271 runs at a strike rate of 166.25 with 3 fifties. The average was only 30, but only Martin Guptill got more runs at a better strike rate.
In 2015-16, de Villiers played 8 Tests and scored 468 runs at 33.42. He got to 50 three times and did not score a century. The runs were scored relatively painstakingly, at a strike rate of 45.30, rather glacial by his standards.
This was less than mediocre by his stratospheric standards.
He was not enjoying Test cricket anymore.
I did talk about the changes required between formats. The mental adjustments and modification of approach. And it is quite obvious that when one switches to Test cricket, the adjustment is a near metamorphosis. And, therefore, exceedingly strenuous.
Perhaps there are other factors at work. Perhaps the choice of coach has something to do with it. The pressures of captaincy too, which Graeme Smith has wisely asked him to eschew.
However, it cannot be doubted that de Villiers was not enjoying Test cricket. Perhaps he is not doing so even now.
Of course, we can be judgemental and berate de Villiers for opting for the shorter formats at the expense of the purest form of the game. Of course, we can clap our hands to our shocked mouths at the very hint of preference for IPL and other mercenary leagues over representing one’s country in Test cricket.
However, de Villiers has played 106 Tests for his country. Along with 298 games in the two shorter formats combined. Honestly, we are not really in a position to judge him.
As a professional sportsman, de Villiers has the full right to find a way to extend his career to the fullest and maximise his earnings while he is at his peak. At 33, he is not getting any younger.
And if that optimisation plan for longevity and financial benefits does not seem to tally with Test cricket, we will have to swallow the bitter pill and let him get on with it.
But, if he does take such a decision, it will be a supreme loss to cricket. One of the most modern greats, one of the most glittering jewels in cricket’s current treasury, will be seen no longer in the longest format.
And once there is definite clarity about the underlying reasons, there will be several points for the administrators of the game to ponder.