South Africa coach Ottis Gibson wants the focus to turn from AB de Villiers back to the cricket, as his team prepares to take on West Indies in a game it really cannot afford to lose. Speaking in Southampton on Saturday, Gibson patiently answered questions and revealed details on the de Villiers controversy. "Personally I suspect there are a lot of people wanting AB to be here [more] than AB himself," Gibson said. "If he wanted to be here he would be here."
Gibson's 20-minutes-plus media briefing at the Aegeas Bowl was dominated by de Villiers, with South African reporters questioning Gibson about the sequence of events that preceded the news broken by ESPNcricinfo on Thursday, of de Villiers offering to come out of retirement.
During the course of the press conference, Gibson asked with some humour: "Are we going to talk about this all the time? Or are we going to prepare for the West Indies game?" He was patient with the questioning and civil with his replies, saying that during the South African pre-World Cup training camp in Cape Town, the players were told in passing of the ABD offer, and the possibility of the news coming up during the tournament, and told to tackle it like they would other "distractions".
The earliest overture from de Villiers was made to South Africa captain Faf du Plessis during the IPL and matters took their course from there.
"He spoke to Faf, they were in the IPL or whatever, and then Faf phoned me to tell me what was going on, and then some time after that, he phoned me to ask, to say that he… I can't remember his exact words, but he said that is there any chance he could come back." Gibson's conversation took place just before the World Cup team was announced and his reply to de Villiers was that he would have to speak to Cricket South Africa and the selectors. Gibson said his "immediate reaction" to de Villiers at the time was that "you've left it too late. That's what I said - you can quote me on that - that's what I said."
CSA and the chairman of selectors had come a similar conclusion, Gibson said, "A lot had happened since then [de Villiers' retirement] - we'd moved on." De Villiers was also told, if he wanted to be available for the World Cup, then he would have to make himself available for the home series against Pakistan and Sri Lanka, "and he didn't."
When he heard of de Villiers' offer for the first time, from du Plessis, did captain and coach talk about wanting to get de Villiers back?
"No. I think we decided already that he left it too late. The door was open till December and after that to come into the piece … he knew that if he really wanted to, he knew that those ten games against Pakistan and Sri Lanka were vitally important for us, since from March to World Cup we won't have any more cricket. He knew that, and again, he has made his choice."
It was at this point that Gibson laughed, saying it felt like it was, "a court case here."
Gibson had met de Villiers in December 2018, during a domestic match at SuperSport Park. De Villiers was doing television work, and Gibson was being interviewed on the boundary line. "I saw him briefly on the field… and I said, 'are you finished with this retirement nonsense yet?' And he said 'I'm happy with my retirement and I'm happy with the decision I've made', and that was the end of that as far as the Proteas were concerned and I was concerned."
The two men had spoken on the day of de Villiers' retirement announcement in May 2018 and Gibson said, "I don't think you should have to beg a guy to play for his country, but I did make it clear to him that I did think he had made a bad decision, and he could help us win the World Cup, and he said he had made his decision and he wanted to have time to spend with his family and that was the end of that."
On Thursday, ESPNcricinfo reported that de Villiers had offered to come out of retirement to play the World Cup, just a day before the squad was named. The team management turned de Villiers down since he did not fulfill the selection criteria - playing domestic and international cricket in the months leading up to the World Cup - and they felt picking him would be unfair on the players who had been performing in his absence. De Villiers had retired from international cricket in May 2018, saying he was "tired".
South Africa have begun World Cup 2019 with three losses in a row, and they will need to win most of their remaining six games to have a realistic chance of progressing to the semi-finals. Gibson said of the situation: "I can't recall in recent history a team picking a guy that's retired.
"Nobody's shaken up, nobody's died or anything. When we played in SA, we won eight of the last 10 games… you guys weren't asking those sort of questions then. You guys were focussing on the team.."
Gibson said he hoped the players picked in de Villiers' absence would take the opportunity to show their mettle and that they deserved to be at the World Cup. "I would want them to flip it the other way, score runs, and show everyone that they deserve to be here.
"It's only us that can change it [South Africa's World Cup fortunes]... We can talk about AB all we want but he's not here and he cannot help us. Only we can help us.
"We have to keep believing in ourselves and in the people who are here to do well in the tournament."
Gibson admitted the team management was wary that the de Villiers story could pop up during the tournament, and said they had spoken with the team about keeping focus should such "distractions" occur.
"I guess guys are disappointed that it's come out at the time that it's come out," Gibson said. "When we got together in camp, we spoke about managing distractions, that was one of the things that we said could come up.
"I don't imagine it is going to affect the way that we play cricket, [but] we haven't played very well so far and it is disappointing." The AB news had come as a distracton, "but to me more distracting is, you know, the level of our play. We are not playing as well as we can do. And to me that is more important than whether AB comes back or does not come back or whether he is here or not - he is not here and the guys who are here deserve to be here. They have put a lot of work in and stuff like that, and we've moved from that as a team."