The one person South African coach Mark Boucher is sure of ahead of this year’s T20 World Cup did not even play in the series against England, which ended on Sunday. South Africa lost 1-2 and head straight into another rubber against Australia on Friday, where they could sport a very different squad that could even include AB de Villiers, who Boucher indicated is a shoe-in for the tournament later this year.
“He’s a discussion in the media and in the public but he is no discussion for me. I have had chats with him and we will probably know pretty soon what’s going to happen with him,” Boucher said. “Like I said from day one when I took over, if we are going to a World Cup, I would like to have our best players there.
“If AB is in good form and he is raring to go and he makes himself available for the time we have asked him to be available; if he is the best man for the job, then he must go. It’s not about egos or anything like that, it’s about sending your best team to the World Cup to try and win that competition.”
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De Villiers retired from all international cricket in May 2018 but attempted to make a comeback for the 2019 50-over World Cup, which was blocked by national selectors. At the time, it was explained that the refusal to let de Villiers back was because he had snubbed a request to play in two ODIs leading up to the tournament. This time, de Villiers will be part of South Africa’s build-up, although it is not clear how many matches he will be required to play.
South Africa have a two-month break after the Australia series, which includes three T20Is and three ODIs and will be followed by a white-ball tour of Sri Lanka and a visit to West Indies that includes five T20s. Early indications were that de Villiers would return to the national side after the IPL but with Australia bringing a full-strength squad, de Villiers may be convinced to come back earlier so South Africa can settle on combinations.
That will give South Africa further options to consider as they look to refine their playing group for the T20 World Cup, after Boucher conceded that he still has vacant spots in this team. “A couple of questions have been answered – maybe in a positive way, maybe one or two in a negative way but least the questions have been answered and we are getting an idea of which positions are filled,” he said.
Although Boucher did not reveal exactly which places had been claimed, a quick glance at the series suggests the openers have sealed their spots. Quinton de Kock and Temba Bavuma, who has just five T20 caps to his name, got South Africa off to three strong starts with stands of 92, 48 and 84 and finished as the first and second top-scorers for their team.
Though South Africa had some middle-order challenges, Boucher was “very happy with the batting,” as a whole. That suggests Rassie van der Dussen, Jon-Jon Smuts, David Miller and Heinrich Klaasen, who only played the final match, have all done enough to remain in contention for the T20 World Cup.
The performance of the attack was less satisfying for Boucher, with South Africa failing to defend 222 at SuperSport Park. “The bowling has, at times, been very good. We’ve got wicket-taking ability but as a unit we are not hitting our straps enough and there are a couple too many soft options. If we can clean that act up then I think we are going in the right direction,” Boucher said.
In particular, he wants to work on bowlers’ skills, especially the yorker but stressed that it is difficult to focus on that in between matches because of the tight travel schedule. “We did speak about trying to nail more yorkers but it’s difficult to train those sort of things because we play, we travel, we play, we travel,” he said. “I don’t think the skill is where it should be and that’s something we need to work on. We are looking at a camp that we can put together so that we can work on particular things with our bowlers and our batters.”
While Lungi Ngidi, who defended seven runs off the last over in East London, is unlikely to have been the focus of Boucher’s comments, Andile Phehlukwayo, Dwaine Pretorius, Beuran Hendricks and even Dale Steyn will want to take notes so they know what’s expected of them as South Africa head into their next assignment. Rabada and Sisanda Magala, who has spent the series working on his fitness, are the other options South Africa will consider.
Overall, Boucher has assessed his first full series as national head coach as “tough,” but no different to what he thought it would be when he took the job in mid-December.
“I knew it was going to be tough,” Boucher said. “I don’t want to get emotional about the whole thing. You’ve got to try and be practical and look at where we are as a team and understand that there is a lot of hard work to do.
“With regards to our Test cricket, we are a long way off the mark so we need to work nice and hard there, especially on our batting. In one-day cricket, we are a very young side and I was pretty happy with the way that went. We are in a stage now, I don’t like to call it rebuilding, but we are looking at opportunities for guys to stand up and take responsibility for a position that they could own for a long period of time. If there is a chance to give guys opportunity, then I think we must.”
Despite a number of debuts – South Africa handed out five in the Tests and three in ODIs – the team has not won a series since March last year, which speaks to the dire straits they find themselves in. But for Boucher, this time seems to present possibilities for new heroes, and maybe for a veteran like de Villiers, to come back.