Mark Boucher’s horrendous eye-injury last summer might have meant a slightly premature end to a gritty Test career as an exceptional gloveman and resolute lower-order batsman, but it also released the proverbial Kraaken lurking within the Proteas, propelling them to more prominent heights.
First of all, a wicket-keeper with over 5000 Test runs to his name should never be taken with a pinch of salt. Boucher will be remembered as a gritty lower order batsman, capable of resistance and with a not embarrassing average of above 30. What stood Boucher apart though is his work behind the stumps as a gloveman, sculpted through hard graft following a rather uncertain introduction to the international game in England where he struggled with the swinging ball post-pitching. His dedication and extra training paid off and he finished with a record 998 International dismissals to his name, including what looks an insurmountable 555 in Tests.
However, it is something of a paradox that his retirement has resulted in South Africa finally being able to cement their place as the undisputed top dog in the world rankings, having been in the top two or three places for much of Boucher’s career.
AB De Villiers, one of the most talented batsmen in the world, has taken over the glovework over the past three series and been relatively solid with the gloves. This has enabled South Africa to lengthen their batting line-up, meaning a stronger bat at number 7 and their fairly long tail of Steyn, Morkel and Tahir becomes less of a hindrance.
In 2004 Kumar Sangakarra ‘hung up’ his gloves so he could concentrate on his batting, and at the time he was averaging an impressive notch over 40. In the Tests since then, he averages almost 70, which puts him second to The Don, and only The Don. As a batsman, Alec Stewart averaged an impressive 47 in an era dominated by some of the top bowlers ever seen (surprising but irrelevant fact: Stewart was the highest Test run scorer of the 1990s). As a wicket-keeper batsman he averaged a notch below 35. There are many such examples but in short, history tells us that batsmen’s averages decrease when also charged with taking the gloves in the field.
This is not the case with De Villiers. In the 14 Tests since he’s become designated gloveman he’s actually managed to slightly increase his average, which remains above 50. Contemporarily, Matt Prior is considered exceptional averaging 45. Adam Gilchrist, the undisputed all-time-great of ‘keeper-batsmen, averaged 47. What I’m saying is that De Villiers is pretty damn excellent and his seamless transition to glovework is a massive part of South Africa’s rise.
It is also fair to suggest that history is indicating that there will be a decrease in performance levels the more Tests De Villiers plays as a gloveman. To date, he’s not had many tough scenarios to keep wicket to; no long spells in a dusty Faisalabad, no balls swinging inexplicably late at Headingley, and no-one batting for three days against the likes of Steyn, Morkel and Philander. How he responds to dropping, say Michael Clarke or Kevin Pietersen on 130*, whether he backs his skills or starts questioning them, whether his commitments to the IPL will affect his wicket-keeper drills, how that then affects his batting, whether or not the South African selectors stand by him after the initial slump.
There are all sorts of challenges for South Africa and De Villiers to overcome in order to maintain their all-conquering record over the last year. I’m not a chap to argue with history, so my bet is that whenever Rudolph or Petersen has a few failures in a row the South African selectors will bring in a specialist ‘keeper to replace them, which will unintentionally affect the side’s balance for the worse. As with most of my woeful predictions, we’ll see.