South Africa in England 2012 July 11, 2012

From keeper to clerk and back again

Thami Tsolekile's first taste of Test cricket, eight years ago, set his career back and for a time he left the game behind. But a second chance came his way and he has grabbed it

There is a desk in the Western Province Cricket Association offices that once belonged to Thami Tsolekile. Not a kit bag or a piece of cricket equipment - a desk. And a chair, and a computer, and a few notebooks and some pens. Four seasons ago, Tsolekile was a clerk. He was dropped by his home franchise, unwanted by any of the others and his cricket career seemed to be over.

It was an anti-climax for a man who had promised so much. As a double international - having also played hockey for South Africa - Tsolekile was a true athlete. He had exceptional hand-eye co-ordination, was fit, fast and skilled and cricket considered itself lucky that he had opted to use the bulk of his talent on it.

He was identified as a potential challenger for Mark Boucher - at that stage the word successor was not being used - and was picked for South Africa in 2004. At 23 years old, Tsolekile knew relatively little of the world but enough to realise he was largely not wanted. A public outcry and even internal administrative strife followed his call-up, tainting his short stint.

Boucher had played 75 consecutive Tests and was sent to the sidelines as punishment for his rapidly growing sense of self rather than as a response to his loss of form with the bat. He was never expected to be out of the side for very long. Tsolekile knew his inclusion was merely an experiment to see if anyone else had could play in the wicketkeeper's role.

After three Tests, the selection panel was convinced no-one could. Tsolekile made his debut in India and was dropped after one Test at home against England, although AB de Villiers briefly had the gloves before Boucher returned. His self-confessed "lack of experience," showed, especially with the bat, where he managed just 47 runs five innings. He was not as bad with gloves on but South Africa had lost the Test at Port Elizabeth, the first of the series, and wanted a quick fix. Boucher had been considered reprimanded so two Tests later was recalled and Tsolekile faded, as far away as he could, into an office job.

Being managed carelessly formed a large part of Tsolekile's retreat into anonymity. He was young and enthusiastic and having a small chance snatched away from him hurt. Although he continued play for Cobras, his spirit had been noticeably squashed. It took a call from up country to revive it.

In 2009 the Highveld Lions franchise, then a struggling team, needed a wicketkeeper after Matthew Harris retired. With a history of importing players from the Cape, they asked Tsolekile if he could be lured onto the cricket field again. A new chance with a new team in a new city beckoned and even someone as disillusioned as Tsolekile could see that it would be foolish to turn them down.

The change immediately paid dividends. Tsolekile took more catches than any gloveman across the franchise system in his comeback season. Given the tame nature of the Lions bowling attack then, it is not impossible to suggest that Tsolekile's success meant he took every chance that came his way in that period. His batting had also improved - he scored his second first-class century that summer - and starred in a record partnership with Stephen Cook to the end the season with an average of 58.10.

Maturity was the standout improvement in Tsolekile's game. Once so hot headed - he was suspended by Western Province hockey for ill-discipline - Tsolekile had grown into a respectful adult. Administrators at Lions hailed and rewarded him for his leadership skills. He was picked as captain of the South Africa A side, elevated to vice-captain of the franchise and installed as leader when Alviro Petersen was on national duty. Under him, Lions qualified for the Champions League T20 in 2010, ending months of sub-standard showings.

Being managed carelessly formed a large part of Tsolekile's retreat into anonymity. He was young and enthusiastic and having a small chance snatched away from him hurt

Tsolekile's glovework has remained his strongest asset but with a top heavy domestic batting line-up that aspect of his game has not developed much further. Still, the selectors were satisfied enough with his progression to hand him a national contract earlier this year, something that identified him again as a successor to Boucher, who announced his intention to retire after the England series.

A roadmap was laid out - in which would Boucher mentor Tsolekile - but it seemed to change course swiftly. Instead, Tsolekile was included in various A sides, such as the one that played Australia A in Potchefstroom. On a pitch that was green and where the North West Cricket Union apologised to Michael Clarke for the lack of batting practice his side had had there, Tsolekile scored a half-century. He also played in the recent two match series against Sri Lanka A, where he equalled the South African record for the most catches in a first-class innings with eight.

Vincent Barnes, coach of the A side, said Tsolekile was "exceptional," in those matches and was "definitely ready for international cricket." Tsolekile was also due to travel to Ireland with the A side that will shadow the senior side from August. His plans have been fast-forwarded because of the enforced retirement of Boucher and he now finds himself on the cusp of playing in the year's most anticipated Test contest.

However, before he even got here, it seemed Tsolekile may find himself an outsider again. Both Gary Kirsten and Allan Donald said AB de Villiers will be the team's wicketkeeper in the first Test. The national selectors would not confirm that they agreed with those thoughts. Instead, they announced Tsolekile as Boucher's replacement the next day and named De Villiers as an "option". While the selection panel picks the squad, the starting XI is chosen by Kirsten, Graeme Smith and the touring selector which leaves uncertainty over whether Tsolekile will play at all.

With South Africa likely to want to include an extra batsman, he may not feature initially and judging by the reaction his call up has received in South Africa some would prefer him not feature at all. Tsolekile is not a popular choice. There have been calls for Dane Vilas, who was unimpressive in the recent Twenty20 tri-series in Zimbabwe, and Quinton de Kock, who will captain the Under-19 side and has yet to play a full season of franchise cricket, to replace Boucher and Tsolekile's support has been slim and grudgingly given.

After years of playing cricket, it is something he is used to. When he was first called up, Tsokelile was labelled a quota player. It is a term he and others of his skin colour - such as Vernon Philander - will have to put up with for years to come. In 2004, it stuck a stigma to him that he could not overcome. Eight years later, Tsolekile no longer flinches when he hears that word. He is more secure than that.

In an interview with ESPNcricinfo in December he said: "I am a much better player than I was when I first played international cricket." It is something that has also been acknowledged by selection convenor Andrew Hudson. Tsolekile feels he knows his game well enough to make an impact and even though his age, he will soon be 32, may mean he cannot think of spending the amount of time Boucher did in the international game he believes he has something to offer. Now all he needs is a chance to do that.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent

Comments