Proteas in England

Thami to have to stay patient?

2012-07-12 22:11
Thami Tsolekile (Gallo Images)
Cape Town - Thami Tsolekile may have hooked up with the Proteas in England, but to what extent the wicketkeeper actually bolsters them in terms of active service remains to be seen.

With team management having already indicated that - as many observers would have predicted - AB de Villiers will be the immediate replacement behind the stumps for the cruelly, permanently sidelined Mark Boucher, it could still be some time before Tsolekile adds to his tally of three Test caps in late 2004.

A great deal will depend on just how comfortable De Villiers, who has previously indicated that he does not fancy the dual cares of ‘keeping in the five-day arena and being depended upon for heavy run-scoring into the bargain, feels in the first Test at The Oval from next Thursday.

The stricken Boucher, after all, who had a baptism of fire to English conditions as far back as 1998 before being admirably consistent with the gloves in two further Test tours, will be the first to testify to the fact that ‘keeping in the UK contains some fairly unique challenges.

A personal gut feel is this: if De Villiers can avoid any glaring clangers at The Oval (and I am not suggesting for one minute he will be especially susceptible to them) and contributes with customary aplomb at the crease too, then he is far likelier to be persuaded to soldier on for what, let’s not forget, is a debatably short three-Test series between the world’s top current powers.

There can be little doubt that his agreeing to take the chore for the short term at the very least has opened up an extra, comforting batting spot (to the undoubtedly gifted JP Duminy) in a South African team not renowned for any meaningful prowess with the blade from No 8 or so downward.

It is one department where England, with their resilient Swanns, Broads and Bresnans occupying the healthy bulk of the tail-end slots, are rightly considered to have a possible edge.  

In terms of the Tsolekile consideration, here is a bald fact: with even the veteran, yeoman-serving Boucher at No 7 often criticised in recent years for not amassing really bulky innings with any regularity, the Proteas have been viewed by credible opponents to be vulnerable to low totals if their batting cream collectively underperforms (which will always happen from time to time).

So what price the batting depth magically being enhanced by someone like Tsolekile, whose first-class batting average after 132 matches (29.03) is lower even that Boucher’s superior-level Test stat of 30.30?

It is a perfectly reasonable, logical fear, isn’t it?

There is also no lack of significance to the fact that, when Tsolekile played his last Test match - the first against the very England at Port Elizabeth in December 2004 - he was deemed only suitable to batting accommodation at No 9 and was roughed up a fair bit by Andrew Flintoff, particularly, in a laboured knock of 22 and then registered a second-innings duck.

Having attended that Test, which saw the Proteas crash by seven wickets and be immediately on the back foot in a series they eventually drew 1-1, I recall much about the match and its lead-up, marked as it was by the unique instance of the usually ever-present Boucher being dropped.

On the plane up from Cape Town, I still remember overhearing a group of businessmen debating the ditching of Boucher, and to be fair they weren’t entirely unanimous in their disapproval.

“Maar toe kies hulle die swartetjie (but then they picked the little black guy),” one of them lamented, to which there seemed more obvious unity of derision.

With those condescending, borderline bigoted words still on my mind, there was a virtual doubling of my sense of satisfaction when Tsolekile, at his main intended trade, was exemplary throughout the Test.

Certainly the Proteas being beaten had absolutely nothing to do with the quality of the sprightly athlete doing the glove-work.

Yet an inescapable fear remained among many of us at the time that Tsolekile’s obvious discomfort at the crease just made him too much of a jarring throwback to an earlier era when you picked your best ‘keeper and to hell with batting considerations.

In 2004/05, that was already an increasingly redundant phenomenon, and in 2012 almost completely so: how many decent-calibre Test nations have the luxury of ‘keepers batting in the bottom three?

Definitely not the current, No 1-ranked England side, whose No 7 (and sometimes even six when they are daring enough) Matt Prior has a swollen Test batting average of 42.31 and first-class one also just above the 40 mark.

It is against this formidable backdrop that Tsolekile, at short notice, joins the pending fray.

Not in his favour right now, arguably, is the South African itinerary for the next two Test series: first this immense challenge against Andrew Strauss’s confident market-leaders and then another three-game one against the old enemy Australia, also in their backyard.

The structure of the present Proteas team is such that the wicketkeeper simply cannot bat any lower than No 7, when you consider that fast bowler Dale Steyn (average a ho-hum 15, despite his admirable resolve and some ability) has had to inch up to the No 8 berth.

There is a case for saying he is better suited, in an ideal world, to some swashbuckling hitting at nine.

It is my suspicion that in the team hierarchy lies a lingering anxiety, rightly or wrongly, about Tsolekile’s ability to make a success of No 7 in Tests, and that the next two series hardly shape as suitable landscapes to be able to afford to put a proverbial toe in the water in that regard.

One thing has to be acknowledged about Tsolekile, the former pride of Langa who now resides with renewed professional vibrancy on the Highveld: he has gone to seriously admirable lengths over the past two seasons or so to subdue fears about his credentials with the bat - averaging a touch under 60 in the 2011/12 SuperSport Series bears that out.

If he gets further Test opportunities for his country, he will be far from undeserving of the chance, especially as he has protested with some passion - and he is a feisty fellow, not unlike one MV Boucher - that he is a better and more mature cricketer than a few years back.

My guess, and I may be proved wrong in the interim, is that that second coming is likelier when the more moderate foes of New Zealand and Pakistan visit our shores in 2012/13 and the Proteas brains trust will feel less insecure about lower-order issues and more willing to fiddle with their combinations, if you like.

So until perhaps the first Test against the Black Caps at Newlands over the New Year period, I sense De Villiers, fitness-willing, being asked to bite the bullet as a ‘keeping “all-rounder” in the five-day game and the likes of Tsolekile more regularly being seen among peripheral squad members, lugging towels and drinks racks about ...

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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