The 'keeping issue is even bigger now
It was not too long ago that there were questions regarding whether AB de Villiers should take the gloves at all in any form of the game for the Proteas. Several arguments were given by many a different pundit and spectator alike, each one expressing their opinion and preference on exactly what role the talented De Villiers should play in the team.
The reason for the deliberation was the fact that a certain young player, namely JP Duminy, had announced himself in emphatic fashion and helped South Africa win a series Down Under. It was then felt that he had proved worthy of a spot in the side and so Ashwell Prince temporarily lost his middle-order spot and returned at the top of the order when he regained fitness.
At the time that Prince was first back to fitness, some said De Villiers should take the gloves so that either an extra batsman or bowler could be employed. This did not happen, as the powers that be felt that Mark Boucher was very important in his role as gloveman (and I agree with them on that!) and removing him would upset the balance of the side. The feeling was also that in test matches, an out-and-out 'keeper is necessary.
We have shifted some way forward since then and AB is now the Proteas' limited-overs captain and wicketkeeper. In the test-match set-up, it seems he is after all going to take the gloves, having been forced to do so after the freak and unfortunate injury to Proteas stalwart and long-time servant Mark Boucher. Not long after Boucher’s return home there was the announcement that De Villiers would keep in the first test match against England.
There was an announcement after that too that Thami Tsolekile would go and join the squad as Boucher’s replacement. It will no doubt be tough for him to sit on the sidelines having expected to go straight into the playing eleven, but he shall have to bide his time and wait for his opportunity. When it does come, he sure must make better use of his chance this time around.
One wonders if the plan was always to have De Villiers as the man to take over from Boucher. A few years ago, I remember that there were issues of a back injury and talk of loading too much on one player, suggesting that it was not the plan. The philosophy may well have changed since then, but it seems to me nobody really knows. To be fair to the selectors and the team management, AB was intended to act also as the cover for Boucher in the 'keeping department.
For the Proteas to have “the” injury happen right at the start of the tour meant that there was a big call to be made and in this instance, I reckon even if AB was not too keen to take the gloves (which he probably was happy to do if asked), there would have been some persuading done because of the fear of having too long a tail against the No 1 ranked test team in the world.
My own assessment is that Tsolekile, whose lack of prowess with the bat is a big disadvantage to him, arrives in England as the backup 'keeper to De Villiers and will be utilised only if necessary; whether that be because AB’s batting is affected or that he doesn’t quite cut it behind the stumps in tests or – heaven forbid – if he too gets injured. Just how clever the ploy is, we shall have to wait and see.
What needs to be borne in mind is just how tough keeping in England is, even for fulltime out-and-out 'keepers. Mark Boucher’s gloves are certainly big ones to fill. His safe hands, astute strong mind and fighting spirit will be missed, and I reckon a specialist wicketkeeper is required.
I do hope that De Villiers’s impact with the bat will not been diluted by the move and that the 'keeping does not become South Africa’s weak link in the series. It is, after all, a humongous one.