Ab Devilliars has admitted injuries have snuck up on him “like a thief in the night” but he remains committed to playing international cricket and building the South African culture as the team continues to go through transition. De Villiers will miss the two-Test series against New Zealand with an elbow problem – while also nursing several other niggles – but was part of the squad’s pre-season camp where they thrashed out goals for the future.
“I have five to six niggles at the moment, including the shoulder that everybody knows about which started about eight months ago. I have been hanging in there. I did fool myself a bit in thinking that I could just keep going and keep going and it has sort of caught up with me a bit,” de Villiers said at the launch of the series in Durban. “It’s a big shame that I am losing out a few Test matches. Unfortunately it’s happened that way. It caught me like a thief in the night. This was not part of the plan.”
De Villiers admitted playing “a lot of cricket in all three formats all over the world definitely played a role” in him being sidelined but has dismissed suggestions that he may consider retirement from some formats in order to manage his workload. Rumours of de Villiers hanging up his boots, which dominated last summer, have resurfaced with the imminent release of his autobiography next month but de Villiers is targeting an October comeback.
“I love playing for my country and I would love to play as long as I can. You’ve got to look after your body sometimes and that’s happening with the six weeks now. Hopefully after this New Zealand series I will be ready to go and will tackle the Aussies in October. There’s a game against Ireland in seven weeks’ time. That’s a good time to test where I am physically,” he said.
South Africa players have a busy 10 months from then with away trips to Australia, New Zealand and England (which includes the Champions Trophy) and a home series against Sri Lanka. They would want to use the fixtures to begin their journey back up the rankings and challenge for major tournament wares. While winning ways are a goal for any team, for this South African team they are particularly important because of the tumble in rankings – from No.1 to No.7 in Tests – and the political pressures they face. Starting from this New Zealand series, targets regarding the number of players of colour in the team will be enforced, which only adds another level of difficulty to balance the playing XI.
To prepare for a challenging period, the team held a camp last week to chart their course. “One of the key things about the camp is that we didn’t just want the team there, we wanted everyone who could possibly represent the Proteas over the next year or two or three,” de Villiers said. “We all just chatted about what we feel has gone wrong over the last while, if there are any issues whatsoever because of the dip in form and where we think we are going as a team. We were really honest with each other, which is a great thing. It was for us to revisit our core values and what we want to achieve over the next while. I don’t think you can achieve big things if you don’t know where you are going.”
An aspect that came into focus was South Africa’s penchant for starting slowly, especially if the team has had a significant break as they have now. South Africa last played together in June and last played a Test in January, and this time they want to break the habit. “The one thing we did discuss is to throw the first punch. We have always been proud of how we can come back from any position but I feel it’s time to take a step towards positivity and not be scared to throw the first punch and dominate games of cricket,” de Villiers said.
The team began training on Sunday and will have five days together before the first Test. It is hardly the month New Zealand have had, with a camp and Test cricket in Zimbabwe, but de Villiers believes his boys will be ready – even without him.
“Our players have played enough cricket over the last while. The important thing was to really connect as a group of players at the camp we had, to really talk about some important things. You don’t want to over-train if you can’t get game time,” he said. “We’ve been playing cricket, white ball for some, red ball for others. The boys will be nice and positive.”