Cape Town – They have a few weeks to mull over it, but sooner or later the South African Test team must face the reality of significantly remodelling their slip cordon for the first time in many years.
The dismantling of an illustrious old firm began when Jacques Kallis announced his retirement from the five-day arena over the Festive Season; the process has suddenly become more complete with long-time captain Graeme Smith following suit at the back end of the Australian series a few days ago, won 2-1 by the tourists.
Between them, that physically imposing pair have almost always occupied slots one (Smith) and two (Kallis) in the hugely important cordon for well over a decade.
Kallis is only the second non-wicketkeeper globally to have achieved 200 or more catches in Test cricket – the great majority will have been at slip – as he ended his career just 10 behind leader Rahul Dravid of India on 200 precisely.
But Smith is also among the most luminary catchers in Tests, his 169 placing him seventh on the all-time list – that is a mighty 369 pouches between them.
Their routine success for South Africa is highlighted by how far you have to go down the ladder to find the next closest Proteas player – it is Herschelle Gibbs, more of a backward point sort of specialist, on 94.
In giving a fulsome tribute to Smith upon his retirement, old adversary and former England captain Michael Vaughan also said on www.bbc.co.uk: “They (Smith and Kallis) have been stuck in concrete in the slips for so many years, intimidating a batsman as you look behind.
“Whoever ends up being there will not have the same presence.”
So just making up for the 22,554 runs they offered between them to the SA cause in Tests will not be enough for the Proteas’ strategists as they weigh up winter Test assignments against Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe: these colossuses of the game will also need replacing as highly-rated slip supremos.
The situation is clouded a bit by few obvious options for the job jumping out.
Among the remaining, incumbent Test players, Alviro Petersen is probably the worthiest candidate to assume seniority in the cordon – he has safe hands and is capable of the odd blinder.
That is tempered, however, by the fact that he continues to flirt all too worryingly with the axe because his main trade as an opening batsman continues to yield runs too fitfully – his Test average is an unremarkable 37.05 after 30 caps.
He is likely to get a fairly generous, fresh opportunity to re-establish himself if only because the departure of Smith is enough instability at the top of the order for the time being, and South Africa can keep a left-right combo if he is partnered, as expected in the short-term, by Dean Elgar.
There are precious few renowned slip catchers among the remainder of the current SA Test squad ... which may end up being just one additional reason why that staggeringly versatile sportsman AB de Villiers eventually surrenders the glove-work for up-and-coming Quinton de Kock.
It is a much likelier occurrence if De Villiers, many experts’ favourite, is named as Smith’s Test captaincy successor: it is rightly contended that leading, ‘keeping and batting in the top five would simply be too much of a burden to saddle him with in the five-day landscape.
In that case, he would probably return to the fielding “rank and file” -- and become an immediately attractive option, given his fast reflexes and athleticism, for slip duty; it is also a position from where captaincy is traditionally deemed especially comfortable and convenient for the individual concerned.
Occasionally seam bowlers do stick up their hands for slip catching (Shaun Pollock was a standout in his time) but nobody comes too swiftly to mind among the present crop of Proteas fast men.
De Villiers and Petersen as the first, possibly experimental partnership in the slipstream of Messrs Kallis and Smith for the primary two slip positions?
That’s my early forecast, anyway ...
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