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March 7, 2014
AB de Villiers is the most likely candidate to succeed Graeme Smith as South Africa's Test captain, but if he is to assume the additional responsibility it might mean a change in team structure. Jacques Kallis, Mark Boucher and Shaun Pollock called de Villiers the "natural choice," but warned he would have to stop wicketkeeping to accept the leadership.
De Villiers is presently the Test team's vice-captain, wicketkeeper and No. 5 batsman, and Boucher does not think he can take on any more. "I don't think it's viable for him to captain, bat in the top five and keep wicket," Boucher said. "The ask is a lot. Maybe he can do it for a small period of time while South Africa look for another keeper but in the longer term, he'll need to give up one."
There is recent evidence to back that argument, dating back to de Villiers' appointment as ODI captain when Smith stepped down after the 2011 World Cup. That was de Villiers' first leadership role, having not led at school or domestic level before, and his inexperience showed.
With a strategy of a flexible batting line-up - which has since been scrapped - South Africa were a disorganised ODI unit for the first few months under de Villiers. He struggled to keep up with the pace of captaincy, quite literally, and was suspended for two matches against New Zealand in January 2013 for a slow over rate.
That was de Villiers' fourth series in charge, by which point he had already relinquished the Twenty20 captaincy to Faf du Plessis, and was meant to hone his skills in the job. The wicketkeeping gloves were taken away from him as well and at the time de Villiers said he felt he had more time to "communicate with my bowlers and get the field right."
De Villiers briefly resumed keeping, while Quinton de Kock was given time at his franchise to mature into a domestic player, but currently does not keep wicket in either T20s or ODIs. During that time he also developed into a sharper captain, particularly after the 2013 Champions Trophy, and led South Africa to an away series win over Pakistan, followed by a defeat to them at home, and a home victory over India.
It was regarded as no coincidence that the improvement in his tactics came after he was unburdened from a treble-role. If the same logic is applied to the Test team, it will likely be de Kock who will take over as wicketkeeper. De Kock was recently contracted by CSA and made his Test debut in Port Elizabeth. He's only 21 and has played only 21 first-class games but Pollock was not worried by his inexperience.
"If they decide they want to go the de Kock route, they've got six Tests for him to settle into his role," he said. Before the 2015 World Cup, South Africa will play two Tests against Sri Lanka in July, one against Zimbabwe and three at home against West Indies. The first of those assignments is the most challenging, given that Sri Lanka was the last place South Africa lost in, so de Villiers may be retained as gloveman for that.
If South Africa want an alternative for Test captain, they won't have to look much further than du Plessis. He captains T20 team, has led from school level, enjoys being in charge and has shown he has the ability. His has only played 14 Tests, but already boasts a batting average over 50 and the temperament to bat for days.
Beyond de Villiers and du Plessis, South Africa don't have many other candidates. Hashim Amla was vice-captain of the limited-overs sides but gave that up last February and said his decision was based on not wanting to take on the main role if needed. Alviro Petersen, who leads the Lions franchise, only has one hand on his spot as an opener and none of the fast bowlers have ever been considered captaincy material.
Makhaya Ntini believes JP Duminy could captain in shorter formats because, "he has been playing and performing for long enough and he deserves it." But Duminy is only settling into a more all-round role and it may prove too much to expect from him.
South Africa's options are limited to giving one of the shorter-format captains the Test job and Pollock thinks it could bring a breath of fresh air. "A lot of the tactics over the last 10 years have mainly been from Graeme's head," he said. "Even when he stepped down in shorter formats, the bulk of the strategies come from his thinking. It will be nice for someone to come with a new approach."
The Smith-era and all that came with it - the presence of Boucher and Kallis as seniors and the consistency brought by having the longest-serving captain - is now over. South Africa remain the top-ranked Test team but these major changes may make it tough for them to stay there for as long as they would like.
They have a 12-point cushion over their nearest rivals, Australia, and Kallis hoped it was enough to tide them over until the new crop settle in. "There's quite a bit of a gap between us and the rest so hopefully we can just hang in there for a little while," he said. "We've got one or two series coming up where we can hold our own with a young side but we will also have to be patient for a while. There won't be as much experience in the side but it's by no means a weak side. The guys coming in are just as talented, they might just need some time but they'll be there and there abouts."
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondentFeeds: Firdose Moonda
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Stats highlights from the first day of the second Test between Australia and India in Brisbane