Why AB is STILL best gloves standby

2017-12-27 13:00
AB de Villiers (Gallo)

Cape Town – All of 13 years on from his first taste of the glamour New Year Test fixture at Newlands, AB de Villiers and his use as a wicketkeeper remains a flashpoint of great magnitude.

The veteran stroke-player was unexpectedly fast-tracked back to a demanding, treble role in the ongoing, once-off Test against Zimbabwe at Port Elizabeth – core batsman, captain and ‘keeper.

Ahead of the Boxing Day encounter, he would have anticipated only the first-named duty, but then regular skipper Faf du Plessis pulled out late over health issues, with De Villiers willingly stepping back into those boots, and a hamstring strain for wicketkeeper Quinton de Kock while batting on Tuesday saw him add another emergency task to his list.

Aged an advanced 33 (34 in mid-February), De Villiers remains the original “can do” guy – a massive asset to any cricket team through extraordinary versatility even before you discuss his world-class credentials purely at the crease.

Although further medical details were awaited at the time of writing, the Proteas may be lucky to see De Kock behind the stumps again in the St George’s Park Test, preferring to get him back 100 percent right for the first Test against India at Newlands from next Friday even if there is a chance he recovers virtually “overnight” in the Friendly City.

But hamstrings can be enduring, complex and sometimes unpleasantly recurring injuries in sport so it is likely that the Proteas’ glovework situation will remain fluid going into that first of three challenges against the top-ranked Indians.

First prize, of course, is for De Kock to take his customary place in Cape Town, especially as De Villiers no longer wishes to be considered for regular duty behind the stumps.

He has been plagued by occasional back injuries over the years, a situation aggravated in no small measure by the demands of wicketkeeping, and his optimal fitness purely as a batsman is naturally a coveted quest.

Eclipsed in the runs column by determined young century-maker Aiden Markram on Tuesday – his second in as many Tests – De Villiers nevertheless only underlined his own rare, true superstar quality en route to an often effortless 53.

Nonchalant and almost oblivious, it seemed, to the fact that this was South Africa’s first sampling of home pink-ball Test conditions, the vastly experienced No 4 marked his first appearance in the format in almost two years by blasting those runs at a strike rate of 81, far better than any team-mate managed in tempo terms in the satisfactory enough first innings by the hosts and heavy favourites.

Admittedly against an infinitely more modest attack, De Villiers was operating at the same ground where he had made his Test debut against the rising force that was the Duncan Fletcher-era England back in 2004/05.

He wasn’t the designated wicketkeeper at the outset of that contest (the first of five in a series the visitors eventually edged 2-1) either, as Thami Tsolekile carried that responsibility one last time before being dropped for the follow-up at Kingsmead – where De Villiers performed the role for his country for the first time.

The prestigious New Year Test at Newlands in that season represented the third clash in the series, and the rookie again fared commendably well behind the stumps in a heartening, series-levelling SA victory.

So it was indicative of unusually muddled, inconsistent selection thinking at the time that, soon after the 196-run triumph, the recall of Mark Boucher to the squad for the two closing Highveld Tests – Johannesburg and Centurion respectively – was revealed to the media.

I won’t easily forget that Cape Town occasion, as I sat down with a freshly-showered De Villiers for a prearranged magazine interview in the shadows of the final evening, where I duly asked him how he felt about Boucher (who he clearly, already hugely respected) returning to the mix.

Instantly, so evidently startled, he confessed he hadn’t been told personally yet of the development -- something that understandably left him just a little side-tracked in attention terms for the remainder of our chat.

Throughout that England series, De Villiers was unreasonably pushed from pillar to post position-wise in the SA team, sometimes ‘keeping and sometimes not, and also being employed in as many as four different berths in the batting order.

Given the unwanted De Kock setback, a certain choppiness might be said to surround De Villiers’ role once more as Newlands looms large again on the Test roster so many years later.

Frankly, if the need does arise, the Proteas management should, in the nicest and most diplomatic way possible, sound out De Villiers about his willingness to get behind the stumps for the first Test against Virat Kohli and company.

He would not wish to occupy the dual role for the entire series – you can just about be sure of that – but if it is a question of “Newlands only”, it is possible he may be cajoled.

It would be a vital plus for the Proteas, if so, as it would allow them to confidently stick to the principle engaged against Zimbabwe (should they wish to extend it) of fielding six batsmen and five bowlers.

If De Kock is ruled out and De Villiers doesn’t wish to don the gloves in Cape Town, then a logical alternative choice like the Titans’ Heinrich Klaasen – he has prior SA squad experience, but remains uncapped – would probably force a return to “seven batsmen” and the sacrifice of a bowler.

It is hard to envisage Klaasen, despite being in good nick – he comes off scoring 91 not out against the Knights in the Momentum One Day Cup a few days ago – confidently being engaged somewhere in the top six against India.

And would he automatically be better than De Villiers just as wicketkeeper?

The answer, I would submit, is no.

De Villiers still takes enormous pride in his ability to do the job behind the stumps as a genuine thoroughbred, and quite rightly so, even if it is an increasingly rare responsibility for him these days.

Wicketkeeping vacancy at Newlands, perhaps?

Yup, don’t hesitate to sound out AB first …

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

Read more on:    proteas  |  ab de villiers  |  cricket

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