South Africa v Pakistan, 1st Twenty20, Durban February 28, 2013

De Villiers' T20 juggling act continues

After taking a break from Twenty20s and then giving up captaincy in the format, AB de Villiers returns as wicket-keeper and opening batsman. Clarity is yet to emerge over his long-term role

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Daniel on March 2, 2013, 10:02 GMT

    Shongololo has it right, de Kock has already shown the quality's required in the past few t20's he's played, as well as in the champions league last year. And just a few weeks ago he hit 126* off 60 balls, against an attack featuring 3 former/current SA test bowlers. And Firdose's argument that he will learn his craft domestically is meaningless if he is in the squad, thereby NOT playing either domestically or internationally. AB has said he has a chronic back problem and it needs continuous rest and rehab, so lets groom the best wicketkeeper batsman prospect we have ever had (excluding AB himself that is). And @Zubair, de Kock has a better domestic t20 record than either of Behardien and Ontong, as well as being a better big hitter and at least 10 years younger than either of them

  • Prem on March 1, 2013, 23:48 GMT

    Has AB heard about MS? Dhoni not only keeps wickets all year in ALL formats and captains in ALL formats including IPL. You gotta be tough.

  • Dummy4 on March 1, 2013, 10:38 GMT

    de villiers is a quality player PAK should attack him to win the game he is better than pak wicket keeper

  • des on March 1, 2013, 9:26 GMT

    I watched De Kock hit 120 off 60 balls in a provincial T20 recently. An incredible innings, and if another batsman had played it everyone would call for him to make the national team. But because a 20 yr old keeper played it this is not the case.

    I don't know what journalists have against De Kock, but he is an exceptional talent and keepers who can open the batting don't come along every day. I think the T20 team would be the perfect way to get him involved in test cricket, allowing AB to concentrate on batting in T20s.

  • Deepak on March 1, 2013, 6:33 GMT

    People talk too much about Ab and keeping and de kock to replace him in the future.but nobody seems to notice another fringe player,Dane Vilas.He seems to do well as wicketkeeper in any format and still he has not got a good chance to express himself.Abde as test keeper is a good choice but Vilas is good enough atleast timebeing for the shorter forms of the game..

  • Corne on March 1, 2013, 6:28 GMT

    The Proteas must adopt a "playtime" approach when it comes to limited oers cricket.

    Their preparation for test cricket is serious business, but I don't think it must be for limited overs cricket, it should be their release for all the hard work they put into test cricket.

    Just play to have fun and express yourself, the results will take care of themselves.

  • Satish Chandar on March 1, 2013, 3:13 GMT

    What would you do with ABD? Remove him from captaincy frame across formats. Remove him from keeping from atleast one of ODI or T20. At any cost, make sure that he will be your wicketkeeper for tests and your prime batsman in other formats. Smith and Kallis can take break from one format of ODI/T20. It will allow one extra batsman in Ingram or Miller to cement place in middle order and a new partner for Amla at the top. It will give them a space to find a long term prospect for the team. Preserving ABD is their prime responsibility as he lends a massive balance to the test team. They can try De kock as opening wk role.

  • Dummy4 on March 1, 2013, 0:59 GMT

    There is no place in this xi for de cock.I guess the management has got it right this time around.AB has opened the innings before and that too with a good success.As far as keeping wickets in t20 is concerned,I think for a natural athlete like AB,90 to 100 minutes shouldn't be too much of a work load given that he doesn't have the burden of captaincy.

  • Pranav on March 1, 2013, 0:02 GMT

    I LOVE AB, but I think he will get burned out by the expectations of wicketkeeping in tests, captaining the ODIs, and being opening wicketkeeper batsman in T20s. Personally I feel for a game like T20, AB can just retire from it. For example, between the last day of the 3rd test against pakistan and the 1st ODI, there are 13 days, with 2 T20s in the middle. If AB doesnt play T20s, those 13 days, can do wonders to his back, which is effected by test keeping, and refresh his mind. Personally for t20, I think there should be 5 - 6 guys who only play t20s. I say the same about MSD, there is no need for him to play. Example end of england tests, and begining of pakistan ODIs, MSD could have had 15 to 20 days off. I think some players, espically wicketkeepers & fast bowlers, need to manage their workload. but AB is still one of the best in the world. Good luck to him!