Grooming a successor

2012-02-18 00:00

REPLACING long-standing wicketkeepers is no mean feat, and Mark Boucher can never be written off despite his recent form, but a successor has to be groomed to fill his massive gloves. CSA’s decision to award the 31-year-old Thami Lungisa Tsolekile a national contract is a step in the right direction.

With a first-class average of 29,23, one is inclined to say Tsolekile should be overlooked in favour of stumpers who average significantly better. Heino Kuhn (27) and Morné van Wyk (32) could feel hard done by. Kuhn is the better batsman and Van Wyk has already donned the gloves at ODI and T20 level and boasts first-class averages of 44 and 35, matched by 274 and 341 dismissals, respectively.

Van Wyk’s domestic limited-overs stats are still impressive and if given an extended run it could ease AB de Villiers’s burden, but how he would fit into the current ODI team structure remains to be seen. However, first-class averages cannot always be an indicator of talent. Legendary Australian Ian Healy averaged only 31 in first-class cricket and 27 in Test cricket, yet was picked out of the blue and gave his country yeoman service. Sri Lanka’s Prasanna Jayawardene, one of the best wicketkeepers to both pace and spin, averages 29 and 31 in first-class and Test cricket respectively, but his place is under threat with the emergence of Dinesh Chandimal.

But what do South Africa need, a batsman who can keep or a classical wicketkeeper-batsman? A batsman who can keep is very important to a team that looks to maintain a balance, and it often works in one-day cricket. Rahul Dravid was an able, if not efficient, stand-in gloveman before MS Dhoni blasted his way on to the scene. Umar Akmal reprised his brother Kamran’s antics behind the stumps, with his clangers twice letting England off the hook in the Emirates this week. The wicketkeeper-batsman is essentially the Jack Russell of the team, the one who puts out the fires and never gives up even when adversity stacks up as high as the Petronas Towers.

They are the ones who have middling batting averages, yet their work behind the stumps and their added value to the team far transcends what they bring with the willow.

Test cricket requires a full-time practitioner, someone who is adventurous, ready to get under the opposition’s skin and, most of all, resilient.

Kuhn and Van Wyk are talented glovemen who have proved their worth on the domestic circuit, but Tsolekile has two of the most needed pre-requisites: Test match experience and resilience.

His fling at the highest level was fleeting, limited to three matches at a transitional time in South African cricket when the team was run by Ray Jennings.

Tsolekile must also be judged on the quality of the opponents he kept against and where he kept.

e made his debut in the drawn Test against India in Kanpur in 2004 and the subcontinent’s low and slow wickets are notorious for destroying wicketkeepers’ reputations irrespective of where they are from, while his shortcomings with the bat were exposed by the wiles of Anil Kumble and the explosive four-man pace arsenal that England carried that season.

Having been dropped and subsequently losing his Cobras contract, it was all too easy for him to just give up the game and slink off into obscurity, but the Lions gave him a new lease of life and his 58 against the touring Australians for South Africa A at Potchefstroom, on a difficult pitch in November, showcased his ability to bounce back.

Runs from wicketkeepers are imperative in a results-driven era of cricket.

Adam Gilchrist set the template for the ultimate batsman-wicketkeeper, although aided and abetted by a superb top order that punched a bowling attack drunk before it passed out at the sight of him.

Teams have tried to replicate that without success, and for all his experience and talent, Brad Haddin has failed to fill Gilchrist’s shoes, while South African-born Pommie Matt Prior has all but cemented England’s Test spot, but is out of the ODI team reckoning.

Contracting Tsolekile allows the Proteas to groom a successor to Boucher. The Old Selbornian has been an asset to South African cricket and should he hang up is gloves he deserves a massive send-off, unlike Healy, who was dumped unceremoniously. England, like the Asian sub-continent and the West Indies, is a gloveman’s acid Test because of the exaggerated and late deviation off the seam and through the air.

Should Tsolekile get the opportunity to show his wares, both with bat and gloves, and pass with flying colours, worrying about a successor to Boucher will not be much of an issue.

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