Keeping not behind back issues - AB de Villiers
AB de Villiers has denied that keeping wicket affects his back, despite the prognosis that the wear and tear that sidelined him for three weeks was a result of an increased workload. De Villiers wants to continue as the Test gloveman despite his chronic condition and appears conflicted by what its seriousness may mean for his future in a dual role.
The tour of England - in which De Villiers kept in all three Tests, five ODIs and three T20s - and the World T20, where South Africa played five matches, meant he had three months of continuous action. De Villiers' back took such a beating that Mohammed Moosajee, the team manager, confirmed that if the trip to Sri Lanka had not been a major tournament, de Villiers would have been sent home earlier. Moosajee, who is also a medical doctor, said the cause of the injury was "overuse".
The national management asked for de Villiers to undergo a 21-day rehabilitation programme with no game time. He completed it last Friday and did not play any Champions League T20 matches, which led to him being declared fit for the match against Australia A that starts on Friday. De Villiers is expected to bat at No. 5 and take the gloves in all three Tests on the tour, and is confident his back will hold up.
"They [the media] have made a massive thing out of it. My back's not fractured and there are no missing bones. I've needed rest," de Villiers said defiantly in Sydney, before conceding that the condition has lingered for a while and remains a worry.
"It has been an issue for a long time now. It's something I've got to look after and manage really well for the next few years. I don't believe the keeping has played a massive part in that. I've felt a similar kind of thing with my back when I'm fielding. It's not really the wicketkeeping. I've worked even harder in the field. It has been a few years coming now that this back [problem] has been developing into something serious. That's why I needed a few weeks at home. I've got enough issues with my back to have needed that rest."
If Moosajee's diagnosis is accurate, de Villiers may be right. The spike in back pain he has experienced is not solely because he is keeping wicket. It is a combination of glovework and batting, which is different to a combination of fielding and batting, that has caused the problem. For as long as he continues to do both, the risk of the recurrence exists.
One of the solutions could be for de Villiers to move down the order, although he is reluctant to accept that. "I don't believe keeping affects my batting," he said. The numbers tell a different story. In six Tests in which de Villiers has performed both roles he averages 30.33, compared to 50.42 in the 71 he has not. He has also never scored a century while playing as designated wicketkeeper and has one half-century in the role, which he scored in 2004. On the recent England tour, de Villiers managed a top score of 47.
But he has an explanation for that. "In England, I put in the hard yards and I gave myself the opportunity to go big," he said. "I just never pushed on from the 40s. I got out a few good deliveries, especially at Lord's where Steven Finn bowled me a really good ball. It's almost as if I'm one knock away from people going, 'Oh, my word - wicketkeeping is doing him so much good'."
If that doesn't happen, though, de Villiers insists that he does not mind if his batting is adversely affected for the benefit of the unit as a whole. "I've always been big a believer in playing in a successful team. It's much bigger than the individual. I believe it makes us a stronger side," he said. "It gives us a better chance to perform really well if I'm taking the gloves; it opens up a spot. JP [Duminy] did really well with Vernon [Philander] there at seven and eight. It looked like the batting line-up would never end."
Part of de Villiers' selflessness stems from being part of a team culture that he describes as being better than it ever was. "To have that feeling is something I've dreamed of all my life. I felt it in my last year at school when I really felt part of a team," he said, talking about the schoolboy dream team he was part of at Afrikaans Seuns Hoërskool that included Faf du Plessis, Neil Wagner and Heino Kuhn. That team did not lose a match in two seasons and de Villiers believes South Africa is on the same path, especially as they have not lost a Test away from home since February 2010. "We enjoy each others' company and each others' successes."
Some of those achievements were only possible because of the longer batting line-up, as was evident at Lord's in August. For that to continue, de Villiers has to manage his back carefully and has worked out how to do that. "The key is to look after my core very well. I've got to make sure my abs and core muscles are really strong to look after my back."
Moosajee said that in the longer term "decisions would have to be made", implying that de Villiers may not be a permanent replacement for Mark Boucher, no matter how dedicated he is to the task. Should that be the case, de Villiers is confident replacement gloveman Thami Tsolekile, who is part of the squad in Australia, will have his back.
"Absolutely, yes, he will. He has proven that over quite a few years in South Africa. He has been a very handy cricketer. He has won games for his provincial sides," he said. "It's nice to have him, with his experience, in the team. There's no doubt when he gets the opportunity he'll do well. I think he's ready."
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent