The Protea’s don’t play another Test until the middle of the year when they take on Sri Lanka, the last team to beat them away from home, back in 2006. The selectors and board, rightly, have decided not to name the new Test captain, the man stepping into Graeme Smiths enormous shoes, until they’ve weighed their options.
Those options have been spoken about in great detail since the shock announcement of Smith’s retirement. In the 23 years since South Africa re-entered the Test arena they have only had 4 official Test captains, Wessels, Cronje, Pollock and Smith. So who will be the 5th man to lead the Proteas Test team, and look to continue their reign as the number one ranked team?
By all accounts there are only two options. AB de Villiers is the vice captain of the Test team an captains the ODI team, and Faf du Plessis is the T20 captain. Within those in the current squad Hashim Amla and Alviro Petersen have also captained to a degree at domestic level, and Amla has captained on occassion and been vice captain of the national side. However Amla relinquished his role as vice captain because of his wish not to take up the full role when it became available, and to concentrate on his batting. Petersen’s role in the first eleven isn’t as automatic as would be needed to captain, so he would be ruled out. So really there are only the two choices, AB or Faf.
AB is the natural choice, and as vice captain the progression should see him step up to the full role. He’s been the ODI captain since 2011 and although he has struggled with the change and demands the role requires he has matured and grown into it, and has worked closely with Smith for a number of years. The problem with AB captaining is the triple demand it throws on him, as captain, top order batsman and keeper. He won’t be out of the game at all, and the mental drain could have effects on his batting and keeping. It’s not to say it can’t be done, MS Dhoni does it for India. The difference being AB bats at 5 and Dhoni at 7, and AB is his teams best batsman, while Dhoni has that responsibility shifted to those up the order. It could be done for a short while as they identify who the next keeper will be, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see AB don the gloves in Sri Lanka, keeping in the Subcontinent is a lot different to keeping in SA, and the new keeper be introduced at home against the West Indies in December. What that doe suggest though is that AB will have to give up the gloves if he is to captain the team. It’s already happened in the shorter formats, AB was the keeper but did find it difficult setting fields, rotating his bowlers and keeping up with the pace of the game while keeping. He has twice been warned and suspended over slow over rates. As captain it’s often easier to up to speed with the game and the batsman when fielding at mid on for example rather than standing behind the stumps. The ODI and T20 gloves have been handed to Quinton de Kock, and outrageously talented young batsman, who is surely destined to be one of South Africa’s next great batsman, but a young keeper non the less. He’s only played 21 First Class games, and has not kept in all of these. With him looking to play a big part in the Proteas plans for the next World Cup, there is a school of thought that says don’t throw the Test keeping burden on him just yet. He made his Test debut against Australia and showed his youthful inexperience when throwing his wicket away late in the day to give Australia an opening. However you only need to go back to Mark Boucher, who was thrown in at the deep end as a young keeper in Pakistan to make his debut, with many saying his keeping wasn’t up to the standards of an international Test keeper. He ended his career with 999 wickets as a keeper (and one as a bowler, giving him 1000 international wickets) and the Test record for keepers. With South Africa losing the experience of Boucher, Kallis and now Smith in the last two years it may be the perfect opportunity to blood someone like de Kock. De Kocks first class average of 48 also means he’d fit the balance of South Africa playing 7 batsman, and allow AB to even move up to number 4, where he’ll get more chances to play longer innings. The balance of the team won’t be effected, de Kock will get time to grow into an international keeper, and AB will bat higher – all good for the team, and all good for AB’s case to be the next captain.
The case of Faf would be built more on the lines of AB staying as keeper. Although he does have a lot of respect within the team as a leader, and has done a good job of leading the T20 team. This months T20 World Cup may be a reason why the selectors have decided to wait in naming the captain, as a Proteas win, their first in a World Cup, would be a strong case for Faf to take over the Test team. He’s also captained the Titans at domestic level, something AB has not done. The counter to that would be him not having a settled slot in the Proteas batting line up. Having batted everywhere from 4 to 7 in is short career, you’d want him to establish a role within the team before throwing the captaincy at him. He was earmarked as taking over from Kallis at 4 in the batting line up, but was then moved down the order 3rd Test against Australia. A lot will depend on how he handles the pressure of captaining a South African team at a World Cup in the next few weeks, the outcome of which could have a baring on which way the selectors lean.
Both are strong candidates for the job and will not let anyone down. However if I were asked to decide today, I’d hand the captaincy over to AB and get de Kock the gloves, and usher in a new era in South African cricket, with a new captain, and a talented young batsman-keeper who could end up being the next Gilchrist. We’ll have to wait a while before we know which way the selectors will go though!