You would be hard-pressed to find a cricketer who does not see the five-day format as the ultimate test of skill in the game, but despite this status it is also beginning to lose its luster to the high-octane, and high-money stakes, of limited overs cricket.
AB de Villiers’ decision to ditch the longer format, for now, in search of limited overs glory says much about where his priorities lie. He has other career objectives away from Test cricket, which is fair enough, but where players previously did everything possible to play the longest format of the game, that is now palpably no longer the case in many parts of the world.
Challenges to Test cricket are not new; there was a time when One-Day Internationals (ODIs) were thought of as the future of the game, before its smaller cousin, Twenty20 cricket, was born and has now placed the 50-over format under threat.
In our pursuit of cramming more action into a shorter period of time, as attention-spans wane and we have ever more entertainment buzzing about to distract us, five days of cricket can seem just too long, for players and fans.
And therein lies the danger for Tests, even as the ‘purest’ form of the game. It is a format that is fighting to hold attention as we are bombarded with more convenient entertainment choices.
And it is not just the fans who feel that way. De Villiers earlier this year became the latest cricketer to put a halt to his Test career in favor of the shorter formats.
Brendon McCullum, Chris Gayle, MS Dhoni, Dwayne Bravo, to name just a few, are other big-name players who quit Tests to concentrate on the shorter format and they continue to feature in lucrative leagues around the world.
Gayle was earning $100,000 per year playing for the West Indies when he retired from Test cricket in 2014. It is estimated, as no official figure exists, that he earns up to $3.5 million per annum playing the Twenty20 circuit that these days includes the Indian Premier League (IPL), as well as tournaments in Australia, England, Pakistan (hosted in the UAE), West Indies and Bangladesh, as well as a new competition to be staged in South Africa this November and December, for which Gayle is a marquee player.
Much more money for much less work, less strain on the body and less time away from home sounds like a no-brainer and as precedents continue to be set, the genuine fear is that Test cricket may battle even more to hold onto the game’s star names in the future.
De Villiers was paid $1.1 million for playing in the IPL in 2017, and he can look forward to more of that in the future if he can stay fit.
Is it worth it for him to risk another serious injury like the elbow problem that kept him out of the game for seven months in the second half of last year and put that income in jeopardy?
We can stand on our perches and suggest allegiance to the country’s flag should come first, but that is unrealistic with the amount of money floating about the Twenty20 circuit, and possibly unfair on De Villiers.
The swashbuckling batsman says he will be back for the home Tests against India and Australia in the 2017/18 season, but cynics have suggested that has more to do with his commercial obligations than any real desire to keep playing the five-day format.
That is also perhaps harsh. De Villiers has stated openly that beating Australia in a home Test series, something South Africa have failed to do since 1970, remains a career goal, though perhaps not one at the top of the list.
Whether he does return or not, De Villiers has now entered a stage of his career where he can cherry-pick his assignments based on financial considerations and career goals.
Test cricket has become, for him, too hard on the body, too much time away from family and, it would appear, too much hassle. The lure of a potential Test century at Lord’s, which might have captivated him as a youngster, is simply no longer there. And he makes no bones about it.
But there is a goal that De Villiers does still have that appears to have consumed him – winning the 50-over World Cup in 2019.
De Villiers took the semifinal defeat to New Zealand in 2015 hard and while his legacy as one of South Africa’s greatest ever cricketers is secure, to bow out by lifting the trophy in England in two years’ time would be the defining moment of his incredible career given the disappointments South Africa have endured in the competition in the past.
“Over the last few years something has come to mind, which is the fact that we haven’t won a World Cup yet. And for me to make it to the 2019 World Cup, I can’t really be serious in every format,” De Villiers admitted earlier this year.
“I’m definitely not retiring from Test cricket because I have plans to come back at some stage. For me, for now the most important thing is the 2019 World Cup. I want to make sure we get there. I want to make sure we lift that trophy.”
“Obviously there are other factors that play a role, like family and time away from home, but the main reason for me is that World Cup and I feel that if I play all formats all the time, then mentally and physically I won’t be at my best.”
That World Cup is the reason why South Africa’s, and De Villiers’, participation in the ICC Champions Trophy in England this June is so important.
Even two years out, it is the perfect preparation for the South African side to hone their game-plan in those almost unique English conditions, for the bowlers to learn their line and lengths, and for the batsmen to be able to counter prodigious English swing.
The South African ODI side is unlikely to change much between now and the World Cup, injuries aside, and so it is a dry run as they meet the sub-continent trio of India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka in their first round pool phase that starts with a match against the latter on June 3.
But having given up Tests to follow his dream of the World Cup, there is perhaps now even more pressure on De Villiers to perform and lead from the front. He has put his eggs in the ODI basket and South Africa will expect a return.
“It’s not easy for me. I have always been the go-ahead guy, the team man who never wants to miss a game for South Africa. But [with] the schedules these days, it’s really tough to play all formats, especially at the age of 32, when most cricketers don’t go past the age of 35.”
“If you do the math, it takes to me to 2019, 2020 at the most. Hopefully by then I will still be fit and be there to lift the trophy with the boys.”
De Villiers has royally entertained in his career, has played a major role in Test series wins in England and Australia, and generally been a superb advert for South African cricket.
Maybe he has earned the right to prolong his career in the way he sees fit.