In light of the Proteas’ dominance against Australia, AB de Villiers’ impending return to the Test side is a complicated one.
First things first … AB must play. There’s no doubt about that. He’s a world-class player and it doesn’t matter if he opens or bats at No 11; he has to play. The more important questions are: Who is going to make way, and where does he slot in? The captaincy is a whole issue in itself, but it’s a discussion for another time.
Having said that, there’s no need to select him for the day-night Test in Adelaide. The selectors must, and should have already, taken a firm and public stance on when he will return.
De Villiers has ambitions of playing in this match. I don’t blame him – who wouldn’t want to be a part of history? But no one in the current team deserves to miss out on this Test, and to unsettle a team performing so well and with so much momentum would be foolish.
But come Boxing Day in Port Elizabeth for the first Test against Sri Lanka, someone is going to miss out and make way for AB. At this stage, it has to be Stephen Cook. He deserved his call up and repaid the faith with a century on debut earlier this year, but he’s fallen on the wayside since, and doesn’t look comfortable against world-class pacemen like Mitchell Starc.
The only problem with that of course, is that he’s an opener.
AB must go back to No 4. For all of the questions surrounding his commitment, he still has 106 Test caps and an average of 50-plus, and he must play in his best position.
So who opens? There are three choices. Hashim Amla, Temba Bavuma and Quinton de Kock. I’m very reluctant to say it, but Amla is my choice, with Faf du Plessis coming back up to No 3.
To do that to Bavuma at this stage would be a poor choice. He’s been excellent at No 6. Having that uncomplicated, compact technique to complement the natural aggression of De Kock at No 7 is a demoralising prospect for an opposition looking to clean up the last five wickets quickly. We saw how frustrated Starc and Josh Hazlewood got at Bavuma’s refusal to change the way he plays, and it was a pleasure to watch.
I think we can safely rule out De Kock. The comparisons with Adam Gilchrist brings back memories as to how destructive he was in that position. He turned good scores into excellent scores, and one gets the feeling that De Kock will do the same, if not better.
Maybe we can take a look at Bavuma further down the line as he establishes himself in the team. He opened in the fourth Test against India in Delhi last year and played well. But should he battle for form up top, I’m worried about what that will do to his confidence should he be moved back down the order. Don’t fix what isn’t broken.
For now, that leaves Amla. It’s not ideal to remove a player with 25 Test centuries from his usual position, but there’s no reason why he can’t flourish one position up. He’s the best ODI opener in the world, and while it’s a different format, he has the experience and success.
The right-hand, left-hand combination with Dean Elgar will also be a nice fit. Amla has brought a lot more attacking flair to his longer game recently, and will complement Elgar’s scrappy style nicely.
It’s a small compromise in order to bring back South Africa’s best batsman.
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