AB: ‘Keeping riddle goes full circle

AB de Villiers (Gallo)
AB de Villiers (Gallo)

Cape Town – I have the strangest feeling of déjà vu.

The rather sudden decision by the Proteas selectors to restore kingpin batsman AB de Villiers to the wicketkeeping role for at least the first two Tests against England shortly – at Kingsmead and Newlands respectively – carries strong reminders of the instability that plagued the position in the 2004/05 home series against those foes.

And if you happen to believe in omens, South African enthusiasts regrettably need reminding that on that occasion, England won the five-Test series 2-1 in Duncan Fletcher’s coaching heyday for them.

Back then, argument raged over a trio of candidates for the SA berth: an already experienced Mark Boucher, and two raw customers at the time in the form of De Villiers and Thami Tsolekile.

All three would feature in the England series, a demonstration of the muddled thinking that existed over the glovework at the time.

In a nutshell, Boucher – already boasting some seven years of service to the country -- had been controversially replaced by debutant Tsolekile for two earlier Tests in India, who then kept his spot for the first Test against the English in Port Elizabeth.

But Tsolekile’s batting stayed fragile in the defeat and he was dropped for the Durban second Test with a fresh-faced, 20-year-old De Villiers – already capped for the first time as a specialist batsman at St George’s Park – asked to assume duty behind the stumps.

De Villiers performed the role with some aplomb at both Kingsmead and Newlands ... and I will personally never be able to forget what happened next.

A couple of hours after South Africa had completed a series-levelling victory (their only one of the series) in Cape Town, I conducted a pre-arranged magazine interview with the promising De Villiers, who I had earmarked as cover personality for an edition of the former The Wisden Cricketer.

Just before it, the media had been informed of the squad for the next Test at the Wanderers, featuring a recall for hardened competitor Boucher -- including confirmation that he would ‘keep at the Bullring even as De Villiers seemed reasonably set to stay in the mix as a batsman.

But nobody had informed De Villiers, so when I both met and interviewed him for the first time, it was both surprising and startling, as I inevitably asked how he felt about having the gloves taken away, to hear him reply: “Oh ... er, thanks ... I didn’t know about that.”

The young cricketer was understandably more than a little distracted as we continued the chat.

In recent times, there has supposedly been much better clarity over De Villiers, now closing in on 32, and the versatile role at five-day level: the planet’s currently No 3-ranked batsman only goes behind the stumps in an “emergency”.

Or so we thought ... the demotion of Dane Vilas from the squad, and surprising non-selection of Quinton de Kock, has simultaneously seen De Villiers asked to keep wicket anew against Alastair Cook’s tourists.

What we all know emphatically is that De Villiers “can”: he has proved many times before that he is well capable of doing a polished job with the gloves, while also still contributing heavily in the run-scoring column.

Multi-talent, multi-tasking; these all come in a day’s work, as it were, for the willing, eternally up-and-at-‘em Abraham Benjamin de Villiers.

Presumably, too, he was thoroughly consulted before the latest decision, which will have caught many observers and pundits off-guard.

But it still seems a risky policy, given that he is no longer a spring chicken and has just come off a particularly draining tour of India where he stood head and shoulders above any other team-mate at the crease for durability and fighting qualities in the 3-0 setback.

It is one thing to say, as CSA selection convener Linda Zondi did in the media release on Thursday, that De Villiers keeping wicket enables fielding of an extra specialist batsman at No 7, but it also means an extra physical burden on the man who is far and away the Proteas’ most reliable factor at the crease – and of late has shifted a notch upward to No 4 from five.

There is also a compelling case for saying that a recall for the wunderkind De Kock would have given South Africa an in-form, potential trump-card within the top seven in the Test side anyway.

Since his axeing during the mid-year Test series in Bangladesh, the baby-faced assassin has responded with two centuries in three innings during the victorious ODI series in India, and been consistently in the runs for the Titans back home more recently during the domestic Ram Slam T20 Challenge. 

De Villiers/Boucher/Tsolekile 11 years ago; De Villiers/De Kock/Vilas today ... the wicketkeeping waters somehow look unappetisingly muddy once more.

Proteas fans can only hope history doesn’t repeat itself in the results column against England.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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England 92/4 (28 ov)
Pakistan 326
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England 92/4 (28 ov)
Pakistan 326
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