How Kyle Abbott walked away from South Africa
The South African team bus, Monday evening
The day had ended well, with South Africa's batsmen recovering from 169 for 5 to 297 for 6. Most of the XI, apart from the captain, Faf du Plessis, and JP Duminy, who both live in Cape Town and would have been staying at their own homes, were on the bus that was headed back to the team hotel. Kyle Abbott was sitting in front of Hashim Amla. At some point on that trip, he turned around and said:
"Hash, I'm sorry."
Abbott had earlier informed his team-mates that there was "the possibility of a story coming out on Cricinfo overnight and I want you guys to know the facts before you read it and ask questions".
Why Amla? "He sits behind me in the bus and he was the only one around," Abbott said.
Amla's answer? "I knew, it's fine."
August 2016 - five months ago
It was during his three-month stint at Worcestershire last season that Abbott agreed to the Kolpak deal with Hampshire that would effectively end his international career. At that stage he had played only six Tests in a career that had begun more than three years earlier. He had not been able to get a regular place in an attack that included Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander and Morne Morkel, and he understood the reasons. "The guys that were ahead of me, how can I argue their place in the side? It's like the Boucher period, where no other keeper can get in ahead of him."
But that wasn't entirely correct. Although Abbott was most often used as a reserve, he was eventually picked ahead of Steyn for a limited-overs triangular series in the Caribbean. He only played two games on that occasion, but both of them came before Morkel had been considered for a recall to the limited-overs team. Still, Abbott was already weighing up the benefits of going Kolpak, which ranged from job security to personal guarantees.
"It's four years of security, and playing cricket is an incredibly insecure environment for anyone," he said. "Knowing that I've got income for the next four years - it will take me to nearly 34 - that's quite reassuring. I look at things like the 2019 World Cup, would I be playing in there? Probably not. I think how many Tests I can probably play in the next two or three years. I am not going to get to 50. There's a few things considered."
Money was one of his reasons but not in the way you might think. Abbott's Hampshire salary will not amount to much more than his Cricket South Africa one, and the move will also take away the possibility of playing in the IPL, even though it does open doors to other T20 leagues in the future.
"It's not far off what I'd be earning in South Africa but I've got an incredibly good relationship with Hampshire," he said. "I hope if I show them commitment over the next four years, it will help me with setting up a life after cricket also. The IPL is a major part of a player's income but I don't see it as the end of the world because other times during the year, when international players aren't available, I will be becoming available for other tournaments. I don't see the IPL as the be-all-and-end-all at the moment."
Abbott returned to South Africa for their home summer in October, and though he did not tell his national team-mates or the CSA administration of his plans, it was clear he had been dropping a few hints in the preceding months.
In the last year
While warming benches around the cricketing world, Abbott often talked about his dissatisfaction with his lot, even to his coach. He let the team know he was thinking about other opportunities.
"I was looking at signing a deal 12 months ago, but I decided to give it another year," he said. "The guys knew, I've had chats with Russell [Domingo] all around the world. It was always in the pipeline."
Although Domingo was privy to Abbott's unhappiness, he persuaded him to be patient and believed the message had been well received. "I had discussions with Kyle six to eight months ago, encouraging him to hang in. To stay within the system while Morkel, Steyn and Rabada were fit. To be patient," Domingo said. "I thought it had subsided."
Steyn and Philander returned to South Africa's Test squad and reclaimed their places in their XI. Abbott, once again, was on the bench for the two Tests against New Zealand. Steyn also returned to the ODI squad in September, leaving Abbott to carry the drinks in the first three matches against Australia.
Only after the series had been won was he finally given his chance, whereupon he responded with 4 for 40 in Port Elizabeth, en route to a 5-0 series win. "It's tough not knowing when you are going to get a game," he said after that performance. "The key is to still tick the boxes at practice, and when those opportunities come, there is no time for questioning out there." It was around this time, in early October, that he was putting pen to paper with Hampshire.
Abbott subsequently travelled with South Africa to Australia, again as back-up. However, in the first Test, Steyn succumbed to a shoulder fracture, and Abbott's status in the squad was transformed. He was pitched into the Hobart Test ahead of Morkel, and responded with nine in the match to set up a series-defining innings-and-80-run victory. With Steyn sidelined at least six months, Abbott was finally sure of his spot for the Australia, Sri Lanka and New Zealand series. He was also certain to play the ODIs.
"Obviously everything has gone pretty much to plan, playing for South Africa in the last couple of months," he said. "There have been a few evenings where I have gone to sleep thinking 'Have I made the right decision?' But I've always woken up the next morning knowing I have. I feel it is a time in my life where I need to make a career decision. I am going to be 30 this year, and I feel this is the right path for me."
After the Port Elizabeth win over Sri Lanka, Abbott reflected on what it felt like to be part of this South African side. "It's a long period of time of hard work that is starting to pay off," he said. "We are enjoying our cricket at the moment because we've got that attitude of 'This is the place we want to play, this is the place we want to perform, and this is the place we want to really be tested.'"
It turns out Abbott's strong performances were actually being buoyed by the knowledge that he would not be tested at this level for much longer. "I think I've been playing the last couple of months in the team with a lot of weight off my shoulders," he said. "I have felt over the last four years that I've never been far away from being dropped, and in the last couple of months it has actually felt like if I do, it doesn't matter.
"It has been really hard playing with that for various reasons. That has contributed to my success over the last couple of months. I have gone out there really enjoying it and not having to worry about too much, and I think that's how you need to play your cricket."
One of those "various reasons", Abbott insisted, does not include transformation, even though he was left out of the 2015 World Cup semi-final in favour of Philander because a target needed to be met. "Ever since I played professional cricket in South Africa, there has always been a quota system. From young ages. I have never used it as an excuse and I won't use it as an excuse now," he said.
"I'm at peace with the World Cup. It was a very difficult time, not only for me but for the team and CSA, and I think it took us a while to get over that. As recently as the New Zealand Test series, we went back and had a culture camp. Since then, not only has the team turned around but the issues the team had with various things regarding selection, that's all been addressed. The team is definitely going on the right path, and so is Cricket SA."
At the culture camp, one of the most discussed themes was honesty and transparency.
Some time on Monday
Abbott got wind of the fact that news of his Kolpak deal was about to break, and he realised he needed to act. "I was disappointed with how the story came out. Although it didn't affect the team in this Test match, I still had to come clean with them. I had to be honest with them. It wasn't part of the plan. The plan was to announce after the series. The way it has unfolded put a spanner amongst the works. You know what you journos are like, if something leaks somewhere…"
Tuesday, Wednesday and the early part of Thursday
With the Test match in full swing, it was up to du Plessis to take the team's focus off Abbott and his impending exit, and to train it on the task at hand. South Africa rose to the challenge. They batted well, bowled even better, Abbott included, and they secured a convincing win.
"It was a case of me getting the team back on track, and that was about making sure all our focus was back on winning this Test match. The guys were brilliant," du Plessis said. "Even Kyle didn't want anything to be about himself. He wanted to make sure everything was still about the team. And the guys did exactly what they needed to do. I was a little bit upset that Kyle couldn't get one or two wickets. I would have liked to see him do well in his last outing. But life is not perfect."
Behind the scenes, CSA was in meetings with Abbott's agent, Weber van Wyk, but it was too late. The board was not about to offer Abbott more money, and neither was he inclined to backtrack on his deal. The deed was done. "I didn't personally engage with them - there was no time," Haroon Lorgat, CSA's chief executive, said. "They engaged with Russell and the team manager, but they were committed and there was no turning back on that. I would have engaged them in conversation but it wouldn't have been flashing cheques in front of them."
While waiting for the last wicket to fall, Abbott gazes at Table Mountain, draped in a curtain of cloud. He wanders around the outfield and kicks up dirt. He takes in his last moments as an international cricketer. At his press conference he vacillates between tearful and tough. He breaks down while reading his statement and then asks one reporter if they will "buy him groceries for the next ten years" when his motives for leaving are questioned. He denies that the words he said three days ago were empty.
"If I wasn't committed, I would have done this a long time ago. I don't think anyone can question my commitment," he said. "I have gone through all this at length with family and friends. I am proud of the cap that I wear - 81 will always stay with me as a Test number. It's the cycle of life and things change. I believe this is the right time for me to go. I don't want to be sitting here in 12 months' time, when everyone is fit again, and I am wearing a bib and I am 30. At some point, you've got to make the tough decision. It's the time for me. I think I am ahead of my game at the moment, there's other opportunities around the world, and as my past suggests, I'm pretty good at taking opportunities. I can't see how anything is going to change."
He maintains he holds international cricket in high regard, and says he has no regrets and only fond memories. "It's where I wanted to play my cricket. I played in two World Cups. There's not much more I could have asked for. I can't be bitter, I won't be bitter about it, because CSA gave me the chance to live out a boyhood dream and I can't be upset about that. It's all rejoice. Although it's been tough, I have learnt so much about myself, about life, it's been incredible."
More than two hours after the media engagements are done, the South Africa team walk out to the pitch to sing the team song. Abbott is with them. He is stationed right next to du Plessis. He hugs some of his team-mates tightly afterwards. Then he walks off the field with Dean Elgar and decamps to a hospitality suite. There is almost no one else left in the ground. Abbott, still in his kit, has remained behind with a few friends. He is still looking at the mountain.
Abbott was due to "open the bowling in the Champions Trophy", Domingo says.
Instead, he will be playing for Hampshire.
South Africa have ten more ODIs - five against Sri Lanka, five against New Zealand - to find a replacement.
He was due to open the bowling in the third Test, at the Wanderers. South Africa have picked Duanne Olivier, the Knights quick, for the squad and have Wayne Parnell in reserve.
But South Africa still have to find a way to stop the bleeding.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent