De Villiers' T20 juggling act continues
At the end of this season, AB de Villiers should consider holidaying in Turkey. There he can sip calming apple tea, delight his sweet tooth with baklava and ask a whirling dervish how, after being in a constant spin, he halts into an upright, elegant position on command.
Unless de Villiers can figure the last one out by himself, something he needs to do as he twirls randomly from one role to the next. Months have passed since de Villiers was named part of the leadership core and permanent wicket-keeper and still, it is not clear which dance he should be performing. Is it that of captain? Keeper? Senior batsman? Opening batsman? All?
De Villiers' summer of swirling is set to continue. It was announced today that, after requesting a break from Twenty20 cricket for the series against New Zealand last December and then giving up captaincy in the shortest format, de Villiers will not only return to the XI against Pakistan but will do so as wicket-keeper and opening batsman.
He will have no man-managing responsibility, because that has been given to Faf du Plessis but he will have extra and different roles by reclaiming the gloves and fronting up first with bat in hand. Both tasks suggest de Villiers is ready to re-immerse himself in the shortest format after some hinting he wanted to walk away from it altogether.
When de Villiers asked to be rested for the series against New Zealand, it was put down to his chronically bad back. That may have had something to do with it but coach Gary Kirsten later said de Villiers was "not sure" about twenty-over cricket and that Kirsten had to "encourage him to play a few more games."
Those words puzzled but the picture they painted was of a cricketer overburdened and in need of time away. Even with the festive break, de Villiers was still denied the gloves in the ODIs which followed to "concentrate on his captaincy," in Kirsten's words. He did not get the chance to do that because he was suspended for a slow-over rate after one match.
Now the juggling has happened again. There are sound cricketing reasons for de Villiers to open in the shortest format. Conventional wisdom the world over has shifted to believe that a team's premier batsman should open in twenty-over cricket because they should have more time in the middle. Mahela Jayawardene and Brendon McCullum are examples and South Africa are following suit.
"AB is one of the best batsmen in the world. He is one of those guys that on the day can score a century in T20 cricket and there are not a lot of guys who can do that," du Plessis said. "He is an x-factor player and using him to open might be a hidden gem we haven't tried yet. It is a call we are making to see what we can get out of it because AB is such a good player. He is naturally a flair player. With Henry Davids, who is a more of a guy that can take you on all of the time, AB offers good balance in that opening partnership."
Asking de Villiers to keep also makes strategic sense in the shorter format because, as Kirsten said, "it is our best combination wicket-keeper batsman-wise." It will mean the medics will be on high alert especially after de Villiers was seen stretching his back extensively during the Test series against Pakistan. If the pain returns, the tactics will have to take a backseat, which could affect the long-term preparation the T20 squad is aiming for. All management can do is hope it does not while they build for the future.
A step in that direction was changing the captain in T20s and du Plessis already looks and sounds a switched-on leader. While de Villiers was eager to please and enthusiastic beyond measure, du Plessis is pragmatic even if it is not fashionable and methodical.
Russell Domingo, the T20 coach, has many of the same characteristics and the two have put a plan in place targeting next year's World Twenty20. Their blueprint is detailed despite the limited time they have had together. "We have 12 games before the World Twenty20 in Bangladesh to make sure we get our combinations right because we haven't got them right before," du Plessis said.
"We will use our first six games to work on combinations and the next six to settle into them. We don't want to get three or four games before the tournament and then start changing our batting order. Now is a good time to use AB upfront and see if it works."
Other areas they are looking at is improving death bowling - which may see the return of players like Marchant de Lange and Rusty Theron who have both only just started playing again after stress fractures - and role definition. The floating batting order may be a thing of the past, especially as du Plessis conceded that "the stuff we have been doing in the past has not really worked for us."
That can be extended to the one-day set-up where South Africa are also experimenting. De Villiers remains captain of the fifty-over team and has returned to wicket-keeping duties in the format, an indication that du Plessis could likely take over there as well.
If he does, it should not be an indictment on de Villiers and it will not leave any bad blood. De Villiers and du Plessis are childhood friends and enjoy a strong relationship outside of the game. "The nice thing about AB is that he is such an easy guy to work with and he gets on with everyone," du Plessis said.
The only missing piece then is what becomes of Quinton de Kock, the talented, young wicket-keeper batsman who was obviously being groomed to take over from de Villiers? He has been included in the T20 squad but is unlikely to play. There, the management team has made the correct decision.
De Kock has just turned 20 and this is his first season as a franchise cricketer in all formats. One need look no further than Wayne Parnell to see the consequences of rushing a player onto the international stage before they have had a chance to develop properly. Parnell was touted as a future great after the 2009 World Twenty20 but a spate of injuries and lack of experience has since left him on the fringes.
Keeping de Kock from going the same way can be easily avoided. That he remains a prospect is not in question. He will be able to spend time on the domestic circuit honing his skills so that when his chance comes, he can take it. Until then, it will be up to de Villiers to stand up straight when all the circling stops.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent