De Villiers ready for Boucher role
AB de Villiers says he is "looking forward to the challenge" of combining his role as a batsman with succeeding Mark Boucher as South Africa's Test wicketkeeper, if he is handed the gloves as expected.
South Africa will begin their attempt to wrest the No. 1 ranking away from England at The Oval next Thursday in what is set to be an emotional first Test after Boucher's enforced retirement from international cricket due to an eye injury sustained whilst standing up to the stumps in a warm-up game at Somerset.
De Villiers has kept in only three of his 74 Tests but became South Africa's first-choice ODI wicketkeeper in 2010 and is now likely to get the job for the Test series against England as well. He will keep wicket in South Africa's three-day match at Kent, although the specialist Thami Tsolekile has also been added to the squad and a final decision is yet to be made.
The unexpected loss of the world's leading wicketkeeper, with a record 555 Test dismissals to his name, has undoubtedly affected South Africa. Boucher was such a part of the fabric of the team that Graeme Smith, South Africa's captain, had to be reminded of his absence during a practice session at Canterbury. However, de Villiers, who regarded Boucher as a mentor, believes that the team can draw strength from the situation.
"He will be in the back of our minds no matter what," de Villiers said. "In our keeping drills today, Smithy even called me Bouch at one stage, and I was like, 'it's me now.' He will be there in the back of our minds but it's more for inspiration as much as anything else. He'll take us a long way to winning this series. It's not a bad thing, as long as you don't get too emotional about it."
"He's been an idol in South African cricket for many years. He's been the rock, the guy with the guts. He's someone who was there when I started off my career, who looked after me, took me under his wing and helped me a lot in my cricket. I probably wouldn't be here without him - it's a big call but it's true.
"They're huge boots to fill, obviously, if not the best. I'm a little bit undercooked when it comes to Test wicketkeeping but I've had a lot of experience, in IPL, T20, ODIs for my country and my keeping has improved a lot over the last few years. It's something I'm looking forward to, if the gloves come my way, in the Test matches. It's something I'll take with both hands."
It could be quite a challenge, as de Villiers is also a key part of South Africa's batting line-up. Greats of the game such as Alec Stewart and Kumar Sangakkara have struggled to combine wicketkeeping duties with consistent runscoring - both averaging significantly less when taking on those extra duties - but de Villiers was sanguine about having to multitask, even suggesting that he might have an easier time of it than in his usual fielding position at point.
"In my experience, I rest a bit more when I keep, I really do," he said. "The only thing I have to look after is my back - that takes quite a bit of stress when I'm keeping. But you don't run a lot as a wicketkeeper. I'm at point and, during a big partnership, I'm running all over that field and I'm really tired after. If anything I might rest a little bit more. I don't think it will influence my batting, maybe I'll go through a bad patch, maybe I'll do even better."
"The captain and coach will have to sit down and take a proper call. I'm keeping in the three-day game, I'm preparing like I'm going to take the gloves in the first Test match and obviously I'm going to prepare like I'm going to bat at five as well. It's not a massive tweak; it's the way you've got to adapt at this level."
While South Africa may worry about increasing the burden on their No. 5, who is ranked the third best Test batsman in the world, de Villiers' record as a keeper in ODIs is worth noting. In 37 matches he has averaged an astonishing 80.36 - scoring eight of his 13 hundreds - compared to 38.81 when playing solely as a batsman. He also seems to thrive when taking on added responsibility, having assumed the ODI captaincy earlier this year while continuing to pile on runs.
Although he described Boucher's injury as a "freakish accident," de Villiers will wear a helmet to stand up to stumps. "I always do," he said. He is not about to change after the horrors of the past week.
Alan Gardner is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo