Good to have you(r) back, AB!
Sport24 columnist Ant Sims (File)
When AB de Villiers was first named as the man to succeed Mark Boucher, a few eyebrows perked up with immense suspicion. They were fixed in an arch of scrutiny for South Africa’s entire tour of England where the once carefree batsman looked a shadow of his former self, poking and scratching around for runs which mattered but looked painstaking to score.
It wasn’t the De Villiers people were used to and there were misgivings about the decision to take up the gloves in the first place, especially after earlier insisting that it’s not something he has really thought about because he has a bad back.
De Villiers’ form took a slight dip, although he was still scoring runs and even though he had previously gone through worse slumps he seemed out of character. Batsmen sometimes lose form - in 2005/06 he went five innings without even reaching double figures, while he went 13 innings without passing 50 in 2006/07.
At 28 he has been through it all and he’s bounced back from it all, yet the dip in form which accompanied his appointment as keeper seemed so much worse. The player who was, just a few months ago, one of the most flamboyant batsmen on the world stage seemed so incredibly shackled and awkward, like a crab trying to shed its shell.
There was tutting aplenty, for many different reasons, when it was decided that it would be De Villiers, not Thami Tsolekile, to don the gloves in Australia and then against New Zealand and Pakistan at home.
So much has changed since those tuts, those raised eyebrows and a general feeling of discontent around the decision to allow De Villiers behind the stumps.
In De Villiers, South Africa has found not only an adequate 'keeper who has applied himself well on some tricky tracks in both England and more recently on the Highveld, but they also have the luxury of being able to play an extra batsman or bowler, whenever they want.
His 100 at the Wanderers over this weekend was right back up there with some of his best knocks and to have a player who can refine his craft in the face of adversity is a blessing for any side. His record-breaking 11 catches in Johannesburg (the most catches in a Test for a South African wicketkeeper and equalling the world-record held by Jack Russell) should also not be forgotten.
The luxury to nip and tuck your team as conditions dictate is not one many countries can afford, but it’s also crucial for a side like South Africa who will, at some point, have to start thinking about life after Jacques Kallis.
The big man might very well play Test cricket for a few years yet, but should the greatest asset South Africa has ever had the fortune of calling their own call time, De Villiers’ inclusion offers an emergency solution without tampering too much with the recipe which has helped them climb to the top of the No 1 Test rankings.
One would be hard pressed to argue that there is a better option than De Villiers behind the stumps and while Tsolekile probably should have been treated a bit better, luckily for the powers that be, things are working out alright so far.
It is, however, crucial that South Africa learn from their mistakes of the last few months and that they make sure they have a succession plan in place for the day when De Villiers is no longer an option, or when he needs somebody to fill in for him on a short term basis.
Wicketkeepers, more than anybody else in the team, entrench themselves in the side and become the silent heart beat which does so much more than gather balls from behind the stumps. It takes a special kind of player to fulfil that role and once you have had a player like Mark Boucher do the duty for so very long, finding somebody to fill the gap is always going to feel a bit be like a post-breakup rebound.
Boucher’s retirement was an unplanned tragedy but, in sport, you have to plan for the worst and, luckily for South Africa, they got away with the rebound. But planning for the future is crucial and at least this time they are showing some sort of initiative by grooming Quinton de Kock in the shorter formats while De Villiers holds the fort in the most important format.
There are still a lot of ifs and buts and there are still a few perked up eyebrows, but as things stand and while this particular reporter was one of his fiercest critics, all that’s left to say is thank heavens we have your back for the time being, AB de Villiers.Ant Sims is a freelance writer who writes mainly about soccer and cricket for The Daily Maverick or anybody else who will have her...
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