South Africa in India 2015-16 November 20, 2015

Vilas' edginess reopens wicketkeeper debate

Dane Vilas, who was picked for the Test series in India ahead of Quinton de Kock, hasn't done badly behind the stumps, but has looked edgy with the bat in the first two matches

Dane Vilas has struggled against spin and needs to step up with the bat © Hindustan Times

A wicketkeeper should be a silent contributor - if he is not noticed, he has done well - but on South Africa's tour of India, he has found himself in the spotlight.

Dane Vilas was a risk South Africa took - he had played just one day of Test cricket before this tour - and he was tasked with one of the toughest tours for a wicketkeeper. The bounce would be variable, the spin plentiful, and that was not the only difficulty. He would also have to double up as the seventh batsman to accommodate an extra bowler. In both departments, he has not looked convincing enough yet.

Vilas has not dropped catches or fumbled stumpings, but he has not appeared entirely in control either. He conceded 15 byes in the first Test and four in the second, in 165.3 overs overall. On some occasions the ball scooted past him; on others it went through him. Almost every time he slapped the surface in frustration.

Vilas has been more conspicuously out of his comfort zone while batting. He was edgy and nervous, as any newbie may be if he came in at 105 for 4, or 45 for 5, or 120 for 5. Vilas, however, tried to be over aggressive. He approached batting as though he had a point to prove, which he had already done in domestic cricket.

Vilas' first-class average is just shy of 40 and he has scored runs under pressure in the past. In 2011, when he moved from his home provincial team Gauteng to Western Province and found that his first match for his new side would be against his old, Vilas responded with a century, as if to show Gauteng what they had missed. He was promoted to the franchise team, Cobras, the following season and in his third game he scored a match-winning 161 not out against Titans - the then defending champions.

Since then, Vilas has consistently been among Cobras most reliable players. Last season, he scored 499 runs in nine first-class matches, including one hundred and three fifties, at an average of 38.38.

Morne van Wyk, who amassed 714 runs at 79.33 in eight matches for Dolphins, was last season's leading wicketkeeper batsman in domestic cricket but Vilas had done enough to get noticed. It was eventually Vilas, and not the 36-year old van Wyk, who was called up for the South Africa A side for the India tour in August.

The idea when that A side was picked was to create depth for the national selectors and to give some of the players who had not played much on the subcontinent - Dean Elgar for example - an opportunity to get used to conditions. It was not to ready Vilas for a Test stint in India; Quinton de Kock was the first-choice wicketkeeper.

That changed when de Kock's prolonged lean run became a proper drought in Bangladesh and he was subsequently dropped. Vilas was called up for the Bangladesh tour because AB de Villiers, who would have taken the gloves as he did when de Kock was injured against West Indies in late 2014, was on paternity leave. The expectation from Vilas himself would have been low and the understanding was that he was drafted in purely as cover for an emergency.

Quinton de Kock was left out of the Test series against India, despite scoring two centuries during the ODI leg of the tour © Associated Press

Vilas' debut Test in Mirpur was similar to the one that finished in Bangalore. There was only one day of cricket with four days washed out and that was rightly deemed far too small a sample to judge Vilas' ability. He had to get another chance to show what he could do and the schedule dictated that the other chance would come in India.

South Africa's selectors cannot be faulted for sticking with Vilas. Consistency in choosing their players and affording them a long enough run in the side is what South Africa have built their success on. By picking Vilas, they simply did what has worked for them and what is fair. But professional sport is sometimes not all about following that linear line.

By the time the Test squad was picked on September 10, de Kock had blasted his way back to form with three centuries on South Africa A's tour to India. He was rewarded with a recall to the senior limited-overs' sides but was left out of the Test series. Even after de Kock scored two hundreds in the ODI series, he was not kept on for the Tests and was sent home to play in the domestic T20 competition. It was the right message sent to Vilas and de Kock, though it may have cost South Africa both on the field and in the succession race.

South Africa's wicketkeeping position was owned by Mark Boucher for years and that meant there was never a clear plan on how to move on from him. Now, that issue has become fuzzier.

Vilas will not know whether the next two Tests could decide his international future. De Kock will not know whether the fact that Vilas not scoring enough runs means he will get right back in. And what of Thami Tsolekile, as former international opener Alviro Petersen had mentioned on Twitter? Tsolekile may now consider himself extremely unlucky not to have been used in a stopgap role, and that may raise a transformation issue, as Petersen already pointed out.

The tour of India will be won or lost with bat and ball, but there will also be debate about South Africa's selection.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent

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