South Africa’s success against India and Australia may hinge on the management of AB de Villiers.
Michael Holding doesn’t sit on the fence. The former West Indies fast bowler made his feelings about day-night Test cricket quite clear when he kicked the pink ball away in mock-disgust shortly before the start of play on Boxing Day at St George’s Park.
What followed over the next five sessions wasn’t Test cricket as we know it. The slow pitch as well as the conditions under lights provided the South African batsmen with a significant challenge which the Zimbabwe bowlers, and subsequently the batsmen, did not meet.
One cannot help but feel that the Proteas did the minnows a favour by ending the game early. Two more days of that carnage, and the Zimbabwe players may have been scarred for life.
There was only one real takeaway from the match at St George’s Park, a match that amounted to little more than a hit-out in the middle for the Proteas before their season-defining Tests against India and Australia. South Africa, who are now under new management, appear to be toying with the idea of playing De Villiers as a wicketkeeper-batsman, and are perhaps attracted to the balance that selection lends to the side as a whole.
The camera panned to De Villiers in the Proteas change room shortly after Quinton de Kock sustained a hamstring injury while batting late on day one. De Villiers appeared less than amused when teammates patted him on the back in jest.
‘Welcome back to your old role,’ the gesture said. Perhaps De Villiers interpreted it as ‘welcome back to your worst nightmare’.
The game at St George’s Park marked De Villiers’ first Test in 23 months. In the lead-up to his return, De Villiers said that he would prefer to focus on his batting. It’s as a No 4 – a key position in the Test batting lineup – where he feels that he can make the biggest contribution to the side.
De Villiers’ aversion to keeping wicket is linked to a chronic back problem. Indeed, he withdrew from the SA Invitational XI side that was selected to play Zimbabwe in a three-day game due to a lower back strain.
Following the big win at St George’s Park, De Villiers reiterated his stance on the wicketkeeping duties. He would prefer not to wear the gloves. And yet, as he revealed after the game, the matter is still up for discussion by the selectors.
De Villiers didn’t help himself by doing such a good job behind the stumps in Port Elizabeth. Coach Ottis Gibson may be tempted to retain De Villiers in that role if De Kock doesn’t recover from that hamstring injury ahead of the first Test against India.
The alternative is to bring a new keeper into the mix. At this point, Rudi Second of the Knights and Heinrich Klaasen of the Titans are rumoured to be options.
How does the selection of De Villiers as a wicketkeeper-batsman impact on the overall balance of the side? In one sense, it frees the coach up to pick five frontline bowlers.
Dale Steyn could make his return to Test cricket after more than a year on the sideline. Will he be fit enough to shoulder a full workload, though, or will he be used in short spells?
If the intent is to ease Steyn back – at least in the sense of balls bowled – then the selectors may be tempted to play De Villiers as a wicketkeeper-batsman. That would allow for the selection of four seamers (Steyn, Morne Morkel, Vernon Philander and Andile Phehlukwayo) as well as a specialist spinner in Keshav Maharaj. Captain Faf du Plessis would not be wanting for good options in that scenario.
But then bowling hasn’t been the Proteas’ problem of late. Their batting has let them down in the big series (Hashim Amla was the only top-six batsman to average more than 40 across the four-Test series in England). They’ve missed another experienced player in the middle-order, a player with the ability to dominate the bowlers and take the game away from the opposition.
Gibson has made it clear that he wants De Villiers in the mix now and in the lead-up to the 2019 World Cup. The upcoming Test clashes against India and Australia at home, of course, represent a massive opportunity to climb to the top of the ICC ladder.
The Proteas will not win those big series if they bat poorly. They will need their gun batsmen, De Villiers in particular, to be at the top of their game.
Gibson should be doing everything in his power to ensure that nothing compromises De Villiers’ potency. There should be a move to reduce the risk of further injury to that back by giving the wicketkeeping duties to someone else.
De Kock may yet recover to face India at Newlands, but perhaps the time has come to develop an alternative for these situations. The wicketkeeping option of De Villiers needs to be taken off the table.
De Villiers, for all of his past achievements and unique ability, will have something to prove as a batsman in the next seven Tests. He scored 53 against Zimbabwe recently, but the games against India and Australia will demand more of his physical and mental skills.
It would be unfair to place him under such pressure, though, if he is shouldering that extra burden of keeping wicket.
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