JOHANNESBURG – AB de Villiers’ international retirement leaves the Proteas selectors and the national mens team’s head coach, Ottis Gibson with an even larger quandary as they attempt to put structures in place for next year’s World Cup.
Between Gibson and Linda Zondi’s selection panel, the plan for the 2019 Cricket World Cup was to cast the selection net as wide as possible, with refining and shrinking the number of candidates for England expected to take place over the next few months in Sri Lanka and then Australia. Zondi talked of having between 15 and 18 players in place by next summer.
Those plans have now been smashed off kilter by De Villiers’s decision on Wednesday.
The ODI side struggled last summer, losing badly to India in a six match series. But between Gibson and the selectors there was the knowledge that De Villiers - who missed half of that series with a knee injury - and Faf du Plessis, who missed five matches with a finger injury, would be returning at some point.
There were even positives drawn from Aiden Markram being handed the captaincy in difficult circumstances and watching him grow over the course of those few weeks, something which ultimately culminated in Markram’s outstanding series against Australia. But the 23 year old will be the first to admit he still has plenty to learn particularly with regards his limited overs game.
Where does De Villiers’ retirement leave SA’s World Cup plans?
It’s not entirely a mess, but De Villiers’s unmatched skill, craft and his experience leaves a massive hole in the South African side. He is irreplaceable, but someone has to fill the space he once occupied.
Last season against the Indians, the selectors had utilised Markram, JP Duminy and Heinrich Klaasen in the no.4 spot when De Villiers was absent, and it is most likely one of those who will get to occupy the position again next summer.
Certainly for the Titans duo it appears to be a major opportunity. Klaasen made a great impression last summer and played an instrumental role on the rare occasions South Africa was successful against the Indians in the white ball formats. He is an aggressive and innovative batsman - about as close to a De Villiers type player as it’s possible to be.
The 26 year old is a thoughtful cricketer too, and in the Titans environment he’s assumed a leadership position that will certainly stand him in good stead as the selectors start looking for ways to fill the hole De Villiers has left.
Klaasen has been part of the Rajasthan Royals squad at the Indian Premier League where he’s been able to tap into Shane Warne’s vast reservoir of knowledge. Once Jos Buttler, who’d been in sublime form in the IPL, got called up to the England Test side, Klaasen found himself thrust back into the Royals’ starting team and he played a crucial part in helping them to qualify for the play-offs, scoring 32 off 21 balls and picking up a catch and three stumpings in the last round-robin match, ironically against De Villiers’ Bangalore team.
Markram was also tried at no.4 last season, although it wasn’t hugely successful. It may be looked at more often in the next few months as Zondi and Co. weigh up their options. Markram has had all of his success as an opener, but, especially now that they’ve lost such a large chunk of experience with De Villiers retiring, the selectors may want to hold onto some stability and experience at the top of the order in the shape of Hashim Amla and Quinton de Kock. So Markram may have to adjust to a different position if he wants a starting spot in the ODI team.
He certainly has the ability to adapt to the middle order, but how he constructs an innings will have to change, and it will be interesting to see if the selectors believe there is enough time for him to learn how to do that.
Twenty One ODIs have been scheduled between August this year and March 2019 ahead of the World Cup. In that time South Africa has to settle on a starting team, something which was a huge challenge anyway, but which has been made even more difficult now.
Besides Markram and Klaasen, the other options for the selectors will include Duminy, whose own form at international level has been shaky for a couple of seasons and Khaya Zondo, who was given his first international cap against India.