Thami Tsolekile has been identified as the successor to Mark Boucher in Cricket South Africa's (CSA) first decisive move to find a replacement wicketkeeper. Tsolekile was named as one of 22 contracted players for the 2012-13 season, the first time CSA have contracted a second wicketkeeper in 13 years since contracts were first awarded in 1998.
"There's definitely intention there for him to play for South Africa in the longer formats. We've showed our hand and said we think he is ready to be a successor," Andrew Hudson, convenor of selectors told ESPNcricinfo. "But the selection decisions still have to happen and there are no guarantees."
Tsolekile has been playing first-class cricket since 1999 and represented South Africa in three Tests in 2004, when Boucher was dropped after a lean patch. He took six catches but scored only 47 runs and Boucher was soon back at the helm, a position he has occupied for the last 15 years.
However, Boucher has suffered a dip in form himself, having last scored a Test century in November 2008 and has faced mounting pressure over his place in the side. He acknowledged that he is considering retirement soon saying that he knows, "everything has to come to an end," and has forced CSA to intensify their search for a successor.
In previous years it has been difficult to isolate one of the franchise 'keepers as the next best in the country, but the selection committee was forced to do so in the most recent meeting. Contenders included Heino Kuhn, who has played a handful of Twenty20 matches for South Africa, Dane Vilas, who is taking lessons from Boucher at the Cobras and Daryn Smit, who bowls legspin occasionally. But, the selectors have settled on Tsolekile, saying his recent form with the bat and maturity behind the stumps gave him the edge.
"He has always impressed at South Africa A level and he scored runs in England and Sri Lanka. The 58 he scored against the Australians in Potchefstroom at the start of the summer was also important," Hudson said. Tsolekile has averaged over 50 with the bat in two of the last three domestic seasons while his glovework has remained, according to Hudson, "outstanding."
Although he has not been included in the national side for next month's tour to New Zealand, Hudson said he would be considered for the England series later in the year. It is hoped that Boucher last act, which he has hinted could be on that very tour, will be to play an active role in grooming his successor. "His contribution to the national squad has been immense," Hudson said. "Maybe it can be part of his farewell to leave a legacy and teach his understudy."
Tsolekile has shown that he is willing to learn and had made significant improvements from when he first appeared for South Africa. "I was very surprised to get a national contract but all the hard work I've put in has paid off," he said. "As a cricketer I have matured with age and experience and I am more ready now than when I made my debut and I would love to get another chance."
Tsolekile is one of three newly contracted players, with the other two being Jacques Rudolph and Faf du Plessis. Rudolph was recalled to the South African Test squad at the start of the season for the series against Australia. After seven innings opening the batting without a half-century, Rudolph was moved down the order to No. 6 and said that with his place in slight limbo, did not expect to get a contract.
"I was surprised but it's very nice that they have invested their trust me and I would like to repay that," he said. "I would like to have performed better because I got a lot of starts but did not capitalise on that. Gary [Kirsten] (the coach) has made it clear that he wants to give players extended runs so it's nice to know I have his backing."
With Rudolph's place at No.6 still an experimental one, Ashwell Prince's contract was renewed despite him being dropped from the Test squad after the second Test against Sri Lanka. "We never want to write people off and the No. 6 position is still open," Hudson said. "If Ashwell is playing well it can only benefit South Africa. He has been a great servant of the game and is still in our plans."
Those cut from the contracts list include Loots Bosman and Ryan McLaren. Bosman has struggled to find form after undergoing knee reconstruction surgery two seasons ago while McLaren has been left out despite good form. He was the leading allrounder in the recently completed four-day SuperSport Series with 576 runs and 26 wickets.
Another name of interest left off the list is young tearaway Marchant de Lange, who is currently on his first full tour with the national side. de Lange has played just one Test and Hudson said he will be a part of South Africa's future plans. "If you look at it, it took Vernon [Philander] two full series, against Australia and Sri Lanka, before he was offered a contract. We can't always relate contracts to who we will play going forward because selection decisions still have to be made but Marchant is definitely part of the plans."
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent