Clayton Murzello: AB and the art of saying goodbye

May 31, 2018, 05:44 IST | Clayton Murzello

Apart from the feats he achieved in his remarkable 14-year career, de Villiers set the benchmark for ideal, if not fairy tale farewells

SA icon AB de Villiers, who quit international cricket last week. Pic/Getty Images
SA icon AB de Villiers, who quit international cricket last week. Pic/Getty Images

Clayton MurzelloNot many players call it a day after experiencing series wins against two top Test nations, but South Africa's batting icon AB de Villiers decided to put a full stop when a comma could have led to another crack at the World Cup, which his nation has not yet got their hands on despite seven attempts. Great batsmen like AB deserve a World Cup win on their cricketing CV, but it is not going to be the case now and I can hear the cynical voices in the background saying, "The chokers will miss out again."

Apart from the feats achieved in his 14-year international cricket career, AB has set the benchmark for ideal, if not fairy tale farewells. "This is a tough decision, I have thought long and hard about it and I'd like to retire while still playing decent cricket. After the fantastic series wins against India and Australia, now feels like the right time to step aside," AB said in his retirement video.

I am not sure whether AB was moved to find out who Vijay Merchant was when he hit deliveries towards the stand named after the Mumbai batting great during his visits to the Wankhede Stadium crease for South Africa and Royal Challengers Bangalore. But, he did justice to the Merchant retirement mantra — retire when they ask why and not when they say why not. Merchant scored 154 in the Delhi Test against the 1951-52 English tourists and quit. His often-quoted mantra emerged from Merchant's 1936 tour of England.

It is believed that he met England batsman Patsy Hendren at Lord's where the Indians played their tour game against Middlesex. Merchant asked Hendren whether he was quitting international cricket, and Hendren replied, "Retire when they ask why and not when they say why not." Merchant's advice to any player looking to retire was a constant. But Polly Umrigar, India's top run-getter in Test cricket before Sunil Gavaskar went past him, experienced something different when he sought Merchant's view before quitting cricket after the 1962 series in the West Indies. Merchant urged Umrigar to think about his retirement for two days before getting back to him. Umrigar returned to tell Merchant that he had decided to pull the plug and his mentor responded by saying, "It is the wisest decision you have made, Polly."

AB's retirement last week stunned the world, but there was nothing grey about his views. He felt he was running out of fuel and said so. Not only did he merely thank his teammates, but stressed that he wouldn't have been half the player he was, had it not been for them. There was nothing he wouldn't do for South Africa. From opening the innings, batting in the middle-order, pouching catches with aplomb and wicketkeeping, too — a role that South Africa's batting legend Graeme Pollock questioned, but AB accepted without a fuss. "He is too good a batsman to be a wicketkeeper as well in Tests. His job is to field — and he's a good fielder — and to make runs. It's hard work to keep for a day-and-a-half. You could injure your fingers and that would hamper your batting.

"I don't think that's the way to treat him," Pollock told me when AB handled the big gloves in 2014. Pollock and Barry Richards have been rated as the finest batsmen produced by the Rainbow Nation and AB fits well in their group along with the great all-rounder Jacques Kallis. Pollock loved the way AB pushed bowlers to the depths of despair. "The important aspect about batting is putting bowlers under pressure. People think that batting is about not getting out, but you have got to score runs at the same time," Pollock said.

AB loved gathering runs, but nothing gave him more satisfaction than winning matches. His teammates knew it all too well because he would sulk even when he ended up on the losing side in a game of foot volley or table tennis, as revealed by Dale Steyn in a recent interview in The Cricket Monthly.
Probably, the best part of AB was that he didn't allow success to go to his head. He was a superstar without being a prima donna; a run accumulator who didn't get obsessed with the tally alongside his name in the scorebook.

Johann De Jager, a seasoned journalist from Bloemfontein, who has reported on AB ever since he debuted for South Africa, told me that he never saw a rude side to AB. De Jager also remembered what AB spoke about in an interview conducted on a hill in Trinidad during AB's first overseas Test tour, where Kallis and Mark Boucher took him under their wing. In that interview, the young gun vowed to become as good a batsman as Kallis and a fine 'keeper like Boucher. He achieved that and, along the way, learnt how to be purposeful in everything he did. For a good part of his career, whoever wished to get him out, knew he had to earn his success. In the great game of cricket, no one's indispensable, but AB very nearly is.

mid-day's group sports editor Clayton Murzello is a purist with an open stance. He tweets @ClaytonMurzello Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

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