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Time to accept that de Villiers' days are numbered?

Don't look back with anger: AB de Villiers played 98 Tests in a row from his debut in 2005 Getty Images

Consider for a moment that AB de Villiers actually does not want to play Test cricket anymore, but feels obliged to because of the prestige of the format. Consider for another moment that South Africa's Test team, unbelievable as it may sound, has moved on from de Villiers, and moved on successfully. Consider for a third, that South Africa's selectors know de Villiers is an automatic pick, even if the team is winning and they have to mess with its make-up, which is easier said than done. Now put those considerations together and you have an understanding of where South African cricket and its favourite son find themselves right now.

That de Villiers is the most stupendously talented batsmen this country has ever produced is not in doubt. That he can switch from match-winning (think Perth 2012) to match-saving (Wanderers 2013) is what makes him one of their greatest assets. That he will make it into any Test team anywhere in the world is accepted.

But the current South African side has had to do without him for the last six months and not only did they cope but they thrived. In de Villiers' absence, this South African Test team won three successive series, including beating Australia in Australia, and rose from No.7 to No.3 in the rankings.

It's not a simple case of cause and effect, however, and it would be dangerous to suggest that South Africa were successful because de Villiers was not there. In fact, the more sensible way of looking at it is that they were successful despite his absence. But the unavoidable reality is that, eventually, teams move on from even their most valued and experienced campaigners.

De Villiers has been a Test player for 12 years and 106 matches, which started with 98 consecutive Tests before he missed South Africa's series to Bangladesh in 2015. Most players who have played that long will tell you that it is exhausting. Eventually, the hunger goes.

Towards the end of their careers, the likes of Jacques Kallis and Graeme Smith admitted they knew they were done because they had begun to dread training sessions. Both said they woke up one morning and just knew it was over. De Villiers has not yet had that epiphany, but he has made several hazy suggestions that he is not enjoying himself as much as he once was.

Last summer, he was a source of uncertainty in the South African camp. In Durban, during the Boxing Day Test against England, when de Villiers was asked to keep wicket after Dane Vilas was dropped and before Quinton de Kock was recalled, a report emerged in the Afrikaans newspaper Rapport that de Villiers was considering early retirement. Instead of immediately and categorically squashing the speculation, de Villiers went on television during the match to explain that he had been pondering ways to manage his workload. Some thought it was merely a reaction to being asked to keep wicket, a role of which de Villiers thought he had been relieved.

In the next match, de Kock was recalled, Hashim Amla stepped down as Test captain, allowing de Villiers to fulfill what many believed was his destiny - to lead the Test team. De Villiers had not hidden his hope that he would succeed Smith, or his disappointment when he was initially overlooked.

Even after that, however, de Villiers' long-term commitment was uncertain and, in his first Test as stand-in skipper at the Wanderers, he continued to discuss scheduling. It was only in the final match of the series that de Villiers gave South Africa the assurance of his presence, as it also emerged that he would be playing in the CPL later in the year.

No-one can begrudge de Villiers maximising his earning potential as a professional sportsperson - just as no-one should blame Kyle Abbott from giving up an international career in return for financial and job security. But like Abbott, who signed a Kolpak deal five months before his employers at Cricket South Africa found out, de Villiers' handling of the situation leaves much to be desired. Instead of simply coming out and explaining that he makes more money in T20 leagues in a year or two than he will make off his Cricket SA contract over his entire career, de Villiers is trying to butter his bread on both sides.

His conditioning to being fully committed to the national cause may be the reason de Villiers is reluctant to come out and admit that other options are more profitable (and maybe even more fun, with less pressure). De Villiers came from a traditional and prestigious sporting school, Affies, where patriotism is a key plank of student lives. Schools like that bred sportspeople for the pre-T20 league era; sportspeople who put country first. They would not have known the landscape would change so dramatically in their lifetimes.

Now, as Smith has long warned, free agency is the biggest threat facing the international game - especially in South Africa, where there are other unique challenges, not least the commitment to transformation in cricket. And South Africa's volatile Rand makes earning in other currencies all the more attractive.

Those factors will have been cited as being behind younger players seeking opportunity elsewhere, but they may also force older hands, who might have had enough of the South African system and can see an easier way to keep playing. For someone like de Villiers, who has a young family, a T20 premier league - which lasts a few weeks - is easier to deal with than several international tours that take up large chunks of the year.

He is not the only one though. Many South African players went through similar experiences in 2015-16. They went from a full tour of India, to a full home series against England, to the World T20, to the IPL, to an ODI triangular series in the Caribbean. After an underwhelming season, their performances prompted calls for Russell Domingo's head. The coach explained that player apathy was contributing to the failures and asked CSA to urgently address the impact of T20 leagues on the national side.

All CSA have really been able to do at this point is admit there is a problem. They are working on a showpiece T20 tournament of their own which they hope will encourage players to stay in South Africa; they have player retention on their agenda with the South African Cricketers' Association, and they are looking at ways to make domestic cricket a more viable career option. All that may come too late for this current side, including de Villiers.

He has already been given permission to miss the New Zealand Tests in March, with a view to ensuring he can adequately prepare for a long stint in ODIs. His aim is to take the team to the 2019 World Cup. But South Africa must not forget that Jacques Kallis did likewise when he was allowed to select which ODI series he played, in order to prolong his Test career. Kallis then quit Test cricket at the end of 2013 in order to try and make it to the 2015 World Cup, but by mid-2014, retired from all international cricket.

De Villiers has already been told he cannot do the same and that, once he decides to make a Test comeback, he will be expected to be "on the treadmill", in the words of CSA's chief executive, Haroon Lorgat. If de Villiers does return for the Test series in England in July, he will step onto a path that includes a remarkable 10 Tests in their home season in 2017-18, including a series against Bangladesh. That's without considering the ODIs ahead of the 2019 World Cup, and a possible World T20 in 2018, which de Villiers may want to participate in.

South Africa won't be thinking that far ahead yet, only to when they may have de Villiers back in whites. By the time they get to England, they could sit as high as No.2 (if India beat Australia and South Africa beat New Zealand) and even though they may be too far away to claim the Test mace, the Test series will be one of their most important of recent times. They will need to be as settled as they were when they went there in 2012, if not more so.

De Villiers and his wife are expecting their second child later this year, possibly around the time of the Champions Trophy. That could affect his commitments around that time, though exactly how will only be known closer to the time; for now, it just remains another 'what if' and this is a team that does not need what ifs.

They have turned the corner after a poor period, they have addressed issues around team culture and transformation, and they appear to be on the up. They are not perfect, but they have proved to themselves that they can perform without their superstars, without de Villiers, without Dale Steyn.

In the course of such a full-on itinerary, JP Duminy, Faf du Plessis, Temba Bavuma or Quinton de Kock will lose form - at this point, it's Bavuma. At some point, all four may lose form at the same time, and South Africa's line-up will be in a rut. But that could happen with de Villiers involved - like it did in India - or without him. Perhaps it's time, therefore, that both de Villiers and South African cricket at least consider the possibility that they may already have moved past each other.