Proteas coach Ottis Gibson and captain Faf du Plessishave a gaping void to fill in the team's batting card. Photo: Sydney Mahlangu/BackpagePix

DURBAN - South Africa will begin a Test series without the considerable services of AB de Villiers forever, when they meet Sri Lanka in the first of two Test matches on July 12. De Villiers, who announced his retirement from international cricket at the end of the Indian Premier League, leaves giant shoes to fill at number four in the Proteas batting card.

Given his sparkling form in his final summer of international cricket, De Villiers’ sudden announcement would have taken the Proteas by surprise, but they have had over a month to absorb the blow. Now, as they look to take on Sri Lanka, the selectors, coach Ottis Gibson and captain Faf du Plessis have some decisions to make. Who they decide to elect as the new number four will be a very interesting choice, given the impetus that the position gives to the rest of the team.

The squad has been keen to move forward from De Villiers’ decision, because it is not something they can change. Much like several other players that they have lost to various reasons in the past two years, the departure of De Villiers has been confined to the past, as the team look ahead to a massive year. The first obstacle is Sri Lanka, who pose a different threat on home soil.

Though the Proteas made light work of them in 2016, in South Africa, they know that Dinesh Chandimal and his men will be far harder to push aside on the sub-continent. Their slow bowlers will come into effect, and it is in the middle-order that the Proteas will have to show strength and skill to repel, and then pressurise them. The number four batsman, then, takes on a significant role, as he dictates the pace of scoring.

A quick look at the South African squad suggests that Temba Bavuma may be elevated into the key position. Bavuma made an encouraging finish to the summer, stranded just short of a second Test century. He is yet to truly cement his place in the Test squad, but a big series against the turning ball will go a long way to erasing any doubts that still linger about his pedigree.

Alongside him in the middle-order places is Theunis de Bruyn, a heavy and aggressive scorer, who may feel that he has been a little unlucky when it comes to an extended run in the side. Now, with De Villiers out of the picture, and skipper Du Plessis settled in his number five slot, De Bruyn will feel that he has a strong shout for a place in the top six.

The other, intriguing option is the dynamic Heinrich Klaasen, the Titans keeper who made a splash against India. Klaasen scores his runs quickly, and he also has the ability to keep wicket and bowl a bit of spin. Quinton de Kock is another player who more will be expected of in the absence of the dynamic De Villiers, but the powers that be are loath to burden him with too much responsibility with the bat.

His previous, short-lived promotion up the order seemed to confuse him, and set him back at least a summer. The warm-up fixture in Colombo on the weekend will be crucial in assessing just how quickly the batsmen settle into their roles for the tour.

Ideally, South Africa would love to get the bowlers, especially the likes of Kagiso Rabada, Dale Steyn and Lungi Ngidi, to have a bit of a loosener in the stifling heat. Then, they would like to see a few batsmen apply themselves, and get to grips with the turning ball and the constant buzz around the bat. The first Test without the class of AB de Villiers is just around the corner, and they will need to be ready.

The Mercury

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