Opinionista Ken Borland 19 January 2013

The shambles of South Africa’s wicket-keeping

The Proteas team management faced embarrassment this week when its handling of the whole Thami Tsolekile saga was followed by the shambolic manner in which the wicketkeeping job for the one-day team was handed from AB de Villiers to Quinton de Kock.

It’s a serious blow to the good image of the South African cricket team’s management and selectors, who have been exemplary in most other departments, that they still don’t seem to have a clue when it comes to a long-term plan for a successor to Mark Boucher behind the stumps.

Having controversially insisted that the role belonged to De Villiers, one of their standout top-order batsmen and the captain of their limited-overs sides, they have now passed the gloves to an untried 20-year-old who has suddenly jumped the queue.

Coach Gary Kirsten and De Villiers himself have strongly defended their decision to make one of their key batsmen keep wicket in all three formats for the last year but now, suddenly, in mid-season it seems there is a problem with the tactic.

“We want to give AB a chance to just be the captain. We feel that to captain, bat at four and keep is a very hard task, especially as a new captain. It’s something that we spoke about even before he started the role, because I was concerned that it was going to be too much to ask of him. He really wants to focus his attention on his captaincy,” Kirsten said on Thursday.

Kirsten’s comment that he has been “concerned” about the workload from the outset will come as a big surprise to all those journalists who have queried the decision over the last year, only to be met with a forthright defence, as solid and as straight a bat as the left-hander wielded in his playing days.

It’s a dramatic change of mind and it suggests there is not as much stability as there should be in the one-day team as De Villiers completes 18 months in his captaincy term.

And that De Kock should suddenly be the next in line is also cause for much debate. There is no doubt the Highveld Lions prospect is seen as a “Golden Child” … why else would the disciplinary inquiry he is currently embroiled in for shoving a player in a Sunfoil Series match be delayed by Cricket South Africa until after his ODI debut?

”It’s a chance to look at a really young ‘keeper who has some quality batting in him. Everyone within cricketing circles is very excited about his batting ability. I remember Mark Boucher being very much the same and then he came through as a ‘keeper,” Kirsten added.

Well not quite everyone would agree with you Gary. There is a strong caucus of opinion that for all his exciting talent, De Kock is not yet ready to keep wicket at international level or even play as a specialist batsman.

The Lions have seldom elected to put him behind the stumps when Tsolekile is available and Ray Jennings, CSA’s own wicketkeeping guru and the coach of the SA U19 team that De Kock kept for last year, has stated his preference for other glovemen in the pecking order.

It would seem that the selectors and Kirsten may well have made an uninformed selection when it comes to De Kock. It is always a massive risk throwing someone so young, with so little senior cricket experience into the international arena, and generally a mature temperament and life skills are looked for in order to ascertain whether a kid will be able to handle the fame and pressures.

Do they know De Kock opted out of school at King Edward before he had completed matric? What does his current disciplinary problem and a history of frustrated coaches at junior level say about his temperament?

“I’ve met this guy once before and the longest conversation I had with him was one minute,” Kirsten admitted.

This sudden change of wicketkeeper also smacks of De Villiers picking and choosing, series-by-series, which roles he wants to fulfil. This can’t be good for the continuity of the team. Unless, of course, the decision he has made for this ODI series will also count for the Tests against Pakistan next month.

But this seems unlikely as Kirsten said De Villiers “feels keeping in 50 overs is more intense than in a Test match”.

That may well be true when you’re busy rolling New Zealand over in three days, but proper Test cricket could see De Villiers having to keep for 120 overs, often in extreme heat, and then come out and score the match-winning, big hundreds his ability demands of him.

The one sensible thing the management have done this week is employ Boucher as a mentor for De Kock. But will the record-breaking wicketkeeper’s services also be extended to the other contenders like Tsolekile, Heino Kuhn, Daryn Smit and Dane Vilas?

De Villiers’ reluctance to be the incumbent wicketkeeper in all three formats makes the decision to snub Tsolekile look even worse and will only ensure a tougher time for CSA when they try to explain the fiasco to the parliamentary sports portfolio committee.

As the future leader of the best cricket team in the world, it is time De Villiers took a stand and made a firm decision that he will concentrate on being the number one batsman in the world and Graeme Smith’s successor in all three formats, leaving the wicketkeeping job to a specialist.

Ian Healy was at the heart of the great Australian team of the 1990s and kept wicket with great success to Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath as they dominated all batting line-ups.

Interviewed on Australian TV recently, he said not having a specialist wicketkeeper would leave a hole in any Test team, except those that can boast bowlers of the quality of Warne and McGrath.

“Warne and McGrath were so good that they would create probably 22 wicket-taking chances in a Test, but most teams only create 16-18, which makes it absolutely crucial to have a specialist wicketkeeper who can take every chance that comes his way.

“People go on about Adam Gilchrist’s batting, but you must remember he was not batting in the top five and could play with freedom, especially since he had such a powerful line-up coming in before him,” Healy said.

The South African cricket team are digging themselves a hole, when there are common-sense solutions staring them in the face.

De Villiers keeping in limited-overs matches makes sense, but then the workload on him must be lessened by choosing a specialist wicketkeeper for the Test team. DM


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