Welcome back, AB: Er, fancy opening?

2017-08-24 11:25
AB de Villiers (Getty)

Cape Town – It is a quandary that, initially at least, will be largely dodged.

For reasons undisclosed during his own-recorded revelation on Wednesday that he will soon be recommitting to Test cricket and also ditching the one-day international captaincy, Proteas batting ace AB de Villiers becomes available only after the first challenge of the home summer – Tests at Potchefstroom and Bloemfontein respectively against Bangladesh, beginning in late September.

By saying that he is committed again to all international formats from “mid-October”, De Villiers presumably returns to the fray for the three ODIs and two Twenty20 internationals against the relative minnows that follow the Tests.

The more interesting issue, though, will be deeper into the season and relates to where exactly the dashing stroke-player operates in the Test order when headline home series against top-ranked India and old southern-hemisphere foes Australia take place.

Naturally the hot tip will be at the pivotal berth of No 4, where De Villiers had settled for his last handful of Test matches before his pretty lengthy hiatus which kicked in after the 2-1 home series reverse to England in the 2015/16 season.

It seems to make most sense to sandwich him between Hashim Amla, the veteran No 3, and skipper Faf du Plessis, who is the incumbent at five.

Nevertheless, it is perhaps just worth bearing in mind that, in 11 career innings at four, De Villiers has not yet bagged a century and averages 38.45 – his last three knocks are peculiarly all ducks – which is well down on his glittering career figure of 50.46.

But it is a spot in the order where a dominating sort of figure, with a proven reputation for being able to play really juggernaut innings, is required. He ticks those boxes emphatically.

In De Villiers’s absence on the recent, unsuccessful England Test tour, the Proteas experimented at four with all of JP Duminy (Lord’s), Quinton de Kock (Trent Bridge and Oval) and Temba Bavuma (Old Trafford), with generally unsatisfactory returns considering the weight of the position.

The Proteas have a burning issue elsewhere in the batting department, of course, with Heino Kuhn just not cutting it as an opener in England … and then there is the other vexing matter of “six specialist batsmen or seven?”

It is in situations where SA may be inclined to limit the tally to six, in favour of adding a fifth prong to the bowling unit, that the restoration of De Villiers (no debate; he plays!) makes things especially challenging selection-wise.

In such circumstances, it may just be too much of a luxury to field a second “specialist” opener alongside Dean Elgar – though young Aiden Markram is beginning to push, and seasoned Stephen Cook anything but lying down of late -- given that the six surnames you would most expect to see in the batting division, regardless of station, would arguably be as follows: Amla, De Villiers, Du Plessis, Elgar, Bavuma, De Kock.

That scenario means, like it or not, that “manufacturing” a new partner for Elgar from that group might become a necessity.

By my estimation, the likeliest candidate would be Bavuma, who showed tighter technical ability and sheer fortitude than most in England recently, even if he has been on record as saying he does not consider himself an opening batsman.

But with a career Test average thus far of 31.60, the truth is that his status in the side cannot yet be described as fully cemented, despite his clear potential for blossoming -- he may yet be forced to grit his teeth and try out a new role.

It is also not quite beyond the bounds of possibility, perhaps, that more senior figure De Villiers may be delicately sounded out – if not much more than that – about how he feels on rolling back the clock to his own rather distant days (far from noticeably unsuccessful, either) at the top of the Test order.

After all, the now 33-year-old spent many of the first 18 months or so, from 2004, of his five-day career in that capacity.

He averages in the mid-thirties as an opener, and sports three centuries there, including a best of 178 against West Indies at Bridgetown in April 2005.

One thing you would get out of De Villiers, in the event that he should partner someone like the gritty Elgar, is a good foil for the left-hander: his nature is to get a move on and he is very good at bruising a hard, gleaming new ball in the right conditions.

I suspect, however, that there is only an outside chance he would seek to take guard at the top.

Whatever South Africa do in restructuring the Test batting order to accommodate their major bums-on-seats factor, it is simply a brilliant development that De Villiers is back on board.

After all, not too many weeks ago speculation was rife that he was on the brink of quitting the five-day arena altogether.

Test cricket has enough health and survival challenges these days, with or without De Villiers gracing it.

But the fact that he will soon return is a significant fillip, certainly beyond merely our shores, for the most time-honoured of formats.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing


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