AB de Villiers regards the 2015 World Cup semi-final defeat to New Zealand as the "greatest disappointment" of his cricket career and believes there could have been "other considerations" in the selection of the XI that took the field for that match last March.
The revelation that racial dynamics played a role in Vernon Philander being selected ahead of Kyle Abbott came in the aftermath of the tournament and was confirmed by CSA, who said transformation targets were part of pre-match discussions, but this is the first time any of the players involved in the match has spoken out.
De Villers' recollections of the events are published in his book, AB: The Autobiography, which launched in Johannesburg today. The penultimate chapter, called "The Dream", goes in-depth into the 2015 World Cup - revealing that South Africa kept a collective diary in which players made daily entries, and reiterating de Villiers' conviction that South Africa could lift the trophy.
Despite two losses in the group stage, South Africa advanced to the semi-final after achieving their first-ever win in a World Cup knockout match when they beat Sri Lanka in the quarterfinal in Sydney. De Villiers wrote that it was "generally assumed" the same team would play against New Zealand.
That team included three players of colour in Hashim Amla, JP Duminy and Imran Tahir. Throughout the tournament South Africa had played between three and five players of colour in their matches and had not received instruction on any specific number. At 5:30pm on the night before the semi-final, half an hour before South Africa's team meeting, de Villiers got a call - he does not say from whom - to tell him that Philander had passed a fitness test earlier and would play instead of Abbott.
While considering the reasons for the change in selection, de Villiers explains how he knew that an incumbent player who is injured "will automatically go back into the team when he returned to fitness". Philander had spent some of the tournament on the sidelines with a hamstring injury, so if he was fully fit, it would be the norm to recall him. De Villiers also "sensed the selectors thought Vernon would thrive in New Zealand conditions", given his ability to move the ball off the seam on tacky surfaces. All the same, it seemed to de Villiers that "there could have been other considerations".
In contemplating the possbility that there was a quota at play, de Villiers recalls the team's understanding of the situation at that stage. "We had been assured that Cricket South Africa was the only national governing body in the country that had declined to set a target for the number of players of colour to be included in the national team but there was a delicate balance to be struck and it was generally understood that, as they chose the side, the national selectors would be conscious of providing opportunities for at least four players of colour.
"So what had happened? Had Vernon, who was officially classified as coloured, been selected ahead of Kyle, who was officially white, to ensure there were four players of colour in the semi-final? Or had the decision been made for purely cricketing reasons?"
De Villiers does not answer those questions himself. Instead, in the book, he details the effect it had on him.
"It depressed me to think of my team-mates in these outdated racial terms," he writes. "'Would anyone really mind if there were three or four players of colour in our side?"
At the team meeting, de Villiers did not address the issue either. He delivered a stirring speed using a line from a One Republic song to inspire the team: "We owe it to each other to promise each other that 'with every broken bone' we're going to leave it out there tomorrow."
That night, coach Russell Domingo sent de Villiers a text "telling me how much the team needed my leadership" and former coach Gary Kirsten "also made contact, urging me to be calm and positive." De Villiers did not sleep well, admitted he was "emotional" and regarded the situation as "unnecessary and unfair on everybody".
His first thought in the morning was, "I hope Vern will be OK", but he vowed not to overreact because "I still don't know for certain what happened". De Villiers convinced himself to treat it as "just another obstacle to be overcome".
South Africa lost the match on the final ball and de Villiers blamed the defeat on their failure to take "five clear opportunities ... three possible run-outs and two catches", and not on the selection saga. "We didn't lose because of the decision to replace Kyle with Vernon," he writes.
In the aftermath, de Villiers was devastated. He chided himself to "lose properly" even as he cried on the field and later in the change room when he saw his family.
In broader terms, de Villiers is supportive of transformation. "I was certainly not blind to the wider issues and I regard the process of transformation in South African cricket not as something imposed on the game but as something that was morally the right thing to do."
He also maintains that "winning an official World Cup with the South African team had become my burning ambition", which suggest he may play a fourth edition of the tournament, in 2019.
De Villiers has already been part of three failed campaigns. He put South Africa's semi-final loss in 2007 down to "simply trying too hard". He does not offer many reasons for the 2011 loss to New Zealand but reveals that then-captain Graeme Smith warned them that, when they got home, "daggers and stones will be thrown". Smith did not make the trip back with the team.
De Villiers has also competed in six World T20s and captained in two. The 2016 one left its biggest mark on him. South Africa exited in the first round and de Villiers said there was "nothing new to say and nothing new to think" with regards to that, except that facing the media in such situations was no fun. "It will never be much fun until a Proteas team finally goes out and wins one of these ICC limited-overs tournaments. That will happen one day."