AB de Villiers and the Indispensability of the Absent Figure
There is little doubt that Abraham de Villiers is a genius’s genius. This writer has expressed his own admiration for the maestro on these pages not very long ago.
That said, the decision taken by South African selectors not to pick AB for the World Cup, despite his offer to return from retirement, needs to be applauded rather than criticised, because it has shown that principles matter even in the ruthless world of sport.
More to the point, the reasoning behind the brave call is as uncontroversial as it is clear: de Villiers did not meet the criteria to be selected for the World Cup, and so he wasn’t.
It may, of course, be argued based on South Africa’s disastrous start to the World Cup that the selectors in question have shot themselves in the foot. Such a view is vindicated only in hindsight, however, always a convenient vantage point to have.
Besides, despite de Villiers' unquestioned greatness, it is not at all certain that South Africa's fortunes in their first three games of the World Cup would have been reversed if he had turned out for them.
There is no way, for example, that de Villiers could have helped the South African bowlers perform better. Nor would his presence have compensated for the loss of pacer Anrich Nortje before the World Cup began, or Dale Steyn during it.
de Villiers himself knows too that – having been on hand to see Royal Challengers Bangalore go through an unprecedented streak of losses at the IPL – his runs and morale-boosting presence in the dressing room can only count for so much.
The Indispensability of the Absent Figure
The partial outrage of fans at the omission of ABD has to be seen therefore through the lens of a pop-culture phenomenon that is almost unique to sport — namely the Indispensability of the Absent Figure.
The more accomplished the Absent Figure is, of course, the greater the number of fans who think (s)he is indispensable. Recent cricket history is, in fact, littered with examples of the phenomenon.
Which Sri Lankan, for example, would not have wanted Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardena to slot into any of their country’s ODI/Test squads in the last few years?
Which Pakistani fans would say (even now) that batsmen of the calibre of Misbah-ul-Haq and Younis Khan are surplus to the requirements of their Test side?
Which Indian cricket-lover would not have wanted Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid to be batting for them, albeit aged 42, during India’s tour of England in 2014?
Which New Zealand fan would not welcome the unbridled aggression, with the bat and in captaincy, of Brendon 'Baz' McCullum? And which Englishman will not miss James Anderson and Stuart Broad in two years’ time when they are both gone?
Tellingly, even Australia, that proud sporting country where underperforming veterans are routinely dropped rather than rested, mooned for a long time over the retirement of Shane Warne.
Time for South Africa to move on
It is hardly surprising therefore that the South African cricket-watching public misses AB de Villiers.
The intelligent neutral is also likely to miss him, because his presence in the South African middle order would definitely have fortified and emboldened a batting order in which Hashim Amla has been short on runs; David Miller is batting a position higher than is ideal; and Jean-Paul Duminy, making his umpteenth comeback, has not set the scoreboard on fire.
These are excellent reasons for wanting de Villiers in the thick of World Cup action. The fact though is that he is not around, and South African selectors have said why. Their decision needs to be respected, even as the South African cricket team seeks a ray of sunshine in the gathering English gloom.