AB de Villiers has ruled himself out of South Africa's four-Test series in England in July-August and the two-match home series against Bangladesh in September-October, and is targeting a return to the longest format in home matches against India and Australia. De Villiers, who last played in whites in January 2016, stressed that he cannot commit to anything further than March 2018 at this stage but insisted the 2019 World Cup is still in his sights.
"I needed a bit of time away from the game and I need some more," de Villiers said at Centurion, where South Africa have begun preparing for the three-match T20 series against Sri Lanka. "Therefore I made myself unavailable for the New Zealand series, but to add to that is also the England series and the Bangladesh series after that. I am hoping to make a comeback with the Titans towards the end of the year in preparation for the series against India and against Australia. That's the plan. I am not committing to it but I am hoping to make a comeback there in Test cricket.
"My dream plan is to come back for those eight Test matches and that's all I can say for now. My focus is on the 2019 World Cup but if I feel physically incapable of making it after those two Test series, I will call it a day then. I'll make that call once we get there. I can't decide now how I am going to feel in 12 months."
De Villiers admitted the decision to sit out of most of 2017's Tests was "not easy", but that his own priorities have shifted and left him with no choice. "I'm just not ready, that's the best way I can put it. Priorities have changed over the years, family has changed, my roles in the team have changed over the years," he said. "Playing three different formats, with the schedule the way it is, all of a sudden felt like the world is on top of my shoulders, and that's when I felt like I need to start prioritising what I want to achieve in my career, where I want to go and what I feel motivated about. There are a lot of things that have played a role in this decision but I wouldn't like to think it's the end.
"I would still like to make a comeback and finish on a high, somehow have a say in us getting that No.1 ranking, which we deserve over the last few months with the way we have played. It's definitely not the end of the story. I do still have goals and that's why I didn't want to make any silly statements about retiring out of Test cricket or anything like that."
Given the amount of time de Villiers will spend out of the side, he knows he will have fight for his place. India's tour dates to South Africa are yet to be confirmed but CSA is hopeful of having the No.1 team in town for holiday-season Tests in December, which could take de Villiers' time away from the format to 23 months. "It's not like I am not going to walk back into the team, it's very important to note that I am very prepared to come make a comeback at the Titans, score my runs and prove a point that I am still good enough to make the Test side but we will talk about it when we get there towards the end of the year."
De Villiers' proposed comeback will also depend on South Africa's selection plans in the next year. Yesterday, Haroon Lorgat, CSA's chief executive, said that once de Villiers returns, "there's no stopping and no time off. When you play, you play continuously." Lorgat has already informed de Villiers that he is expected to appear in every ODI because he is the captain in that format.
To that end, de Villiers will test his fitness after a persistent elbow injury, which has sidelined him since the CPL and kept him out of the Australia tour and the home Tests against Sri Lanka this weekend. He is due to play a List A match for Northerns on Sunday before featuring in the third T20 against Sri Lanka. The five-match ODI series starts in 10 days' time. De Villiers said he is confident his elbow will hold up.
"It feels pretty good. I am still aware of it. The surgery happened three months ago. The specialist said I will still be aware of it so it's nothing new or different to what he said is going to happen," he said. "I can hit all my shots with the same sort of power that I used to hit them. There are one or two shots that I feel it a little bit more than others and I am not going to tell Sri Lanka before we play them which ones they are. Generally, I feel very confident at the wicket. I have been hitting the ball really well with the couple of net sessions I had."
De Villiers is due to lead South Africa in ODIs in New Zealand as well, before a break in March ahead of the IPL. He confirmed he will play in that tournament but made himself unavailable for any other T20 leagues. "The IPL, I feel has become part of the ICC set-up. There are a lot of reasons why all of us wouldn't like to say no to an IPL. I am definitely not committing to anything else at the moment," he said. "You won't see me at Big Bash, you won't see me in any county game or any other T20 tournament around the world, except for playing South Africa and the IPL. I would like to say I am still very committed to South Africa."