SA cricket pins hopes on De Villiers

Last Saturday evening, after missing out on a maiden Test century by eight runs, AB de Villiers faced a media conference at Centurion.

His mum and dad and two brothers had been there to watch his 92, he said, but unfortunately his girlfriend hadn’t been able to make it. A girlfriend? The hacks’ ears pricked up. So, what was her name?

“It’s an Afrikaans name, it’s quite difficult to pronounce,” said De Villiers before spelling out Gerrieda. Alright then, what was her nickname?

De Villiers wriggled shyly.

“Liefie,” he finally admitted.

So seamlessly has De Villiers adjusted to international cricket that it’s easy to forget he’s just 20 years old. By comparison, Jacques Kallis was also 20 when he first played Test cricket. After five matches, he averaged eight with the bat and questions about his ability to survive at the highest level were widespread.

On Tuesday, De Villiers finally made it through the 90s in the South African second innings to reach three figures. It wasn’t a match-winning or series-saving century, but it was an innings that confirmed an extraordinary talent.

In his five Test matches, De Villiers has played as an opening bat, a specialist number six and a wicketkeeper batting at seven. He’s also a decent fielder, either in the slip cordon or around the boundary. It’s fair to say that the biggest headache presented by De Villiers for South Africa is how best to use him.

Throughout the fifth Test match a rumour persisted that De Villiers had not made it into the squad for the seven one-day internationals (ODIs).

True or not, the selectors would have looked ridiculous had De Villiers not made it. The question now is where to fit him in. With De Villiers in the squad, South Africa have five players – Graeme Smith, Herschelle Gibbs, Adam Bacher and Andrew Hall are the others – who have opened the batting for South Africa in one form of the game or the other or, in most cases, both.

The conventional wisdom of one-day cricket is to send in your best batsmen at the top of the order to give them as many overs as possible. In other words, South Africa’s top three should be Smith, Gibbs and Kallis, but there is also talk of Smith staying down the order at five.

If this is the case, South Africa need to think carefully about what they’re doing. De Villiers looks ideally suited to batting at four followed by a more experienced player, Bacher, say, or Ashwell Prince, with Mark Boucher and the all-rounders to come.

Of course, batting orders evolve through one-day series, but South Africa will be missing a trick if they don’t give De Villiers enough time at the crease to make an impact.

The recall of Bacher is an example of how the wheel turns. In his first incarnation he was seen almost exclusively as a Test player. His record, 19 Tests, eight ODIs, bears this out. Now he’s back, at the age of 31, as a one-day player. There’s no sense in including him in the squad if South Africa don’t intend to play him.

Bacher is one of the game’s good blokes. He accepted philosophically his demotion from the Test team in 1998/99 to make room for Gibbs and reorganised his life, never giving up hope of playing again for South Africa. He may have thought, though, that his time had come and gone, but his return suggest that sometimes there are rewards for keeping going.

Source: – January 28, 2005 / PETER ROBINSON

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