JOHANNESBURG - Last summer, before AB de Villiers had made up his mind about playing Test cricket, his presence loomed over a fragile Proteas batting unit. Now that he’s committed to playing the five-day game once more, his name again hovers over the team as it tries to re-establish itself following a poor series in England.
De Villiers won’t be available until the series against India next January. In the meanwhile, a batting unit that struggled in England and was inconsistent last summer, needs to build confidence ahead of more significant challenges that await later in the season.
That it is not to say Bangladesh, whom South Africa face in the first Test of the season starting on Thursday, are to be under-estimated. Their away record may be poor - just four wins in 47 matches - and they’re without their best player, Shakib Al Hasan, but they’ve got some confidence following that historic win recently over the Australians.
The next step in their development is being more competitive away from home. SA still expect to win, but within its outlook for the series - being overseen by new coach Ottis Gibson - there is the vital task of the home team’s batsmen making runs.
Into the mix has come a sixth new opening partner for Dean Elgar in the last two years, Aiden Markram of whom an incredible amount is expected. That combination will apparently be given time to bed-in and hopefully that stability will allow the rest of the batting order to flourish.
Hashim Amla, has the opportunity to show his is not a career that’s on the wane, while skipper Faf du Plessis, who confirmed that Temba Bavuma will bat at No 4, also has to rekindle some form after a lean run in England.
It is over that middle order that De Villiers looms. Du Plessis acknowledged that it was hard to talk about his good mate right now.
“In an ideal world you want to give players the opportunity that they deserve in the current set up. It’s one of those things where we have to make a decision when the time comes,” said Du Plessis.
“For now, it’s difficult to tell a player ‘you’re only playing two games, and then AB is coming back’."
SA has requested a surface with pace and bounce, but the spinners could come into play if Bangladesh push the match into day five.
The hosts once again faced a selection conundrum about the composition of the starting side.
The bowling option is Andile Phehlukwayo, who Du Plessis got a first-hand look at last week when the Titans faced the Dolphins at Centurion. Phehlukwayo played well with the bat, helping the Dolphins save that match with a gritty second innings of 62. However he went wicketless in a total of 18.2 overs in that match too.
Wayne Parnell was in the squad but Du Plessis said he hadn’t played enough four-day cricket to be considered for selection, although he will remain with the squad.
Should SA choose an extra batsman, they know in De Bruyn they have a player in form, after he scored 195 for the Knights last week.