AB de Villiers and Dale Steyn should walk back into South Africa’s Test team as soon as form and fitness allow. That was the word from new head coach Ottis Gibson on completion of his first assignment in charge – a historic clean-sweep over Bangladesh across formats – and ahead of more challenging assignments against India and Australia at home.
De Villiers, who has not played a Test since January last year due to a combination of injuries and a lengthy sabbatical from the longest format, is available for the Test team again but has accepted he will have to “work my way back” into the XI especially after playing just one first-class match this year and all the batsmen filled their boots against Bangladesh. Now, Gibson has hinted South Africa will make space for de Villiers no matter what, given his reputation.
Asked by a journalist in Johannesburg, calling his own question “stupid”, whether there was space in the Test team for de Villiers, Gibson responded: “What was it you said first there?” – to much laughter, and then replied, “You’ve answered your question.”
That means it is likely de Villiers will play in the inaugural four-day Test against Zimbabwe, which begins on Boxing Day, and in the home series against India and Australia. However, it remains to be seen whose place he will take in a line-up that has been shortened to six batsmen, an allrounder, three seamers and a spinner.
Similarly, Gibson hoped Steyn, who is expected to make a comeback in the franchise T20 competition which starts on November 10, would also be back for those matches even though he has not played any competitive cricket since last November. Though Steyn will not have the opportunity to bowl lengthy spells before the Tests, Gibson will trust the seamer’s word on his readiness for the national side.
“He has got a lot of T20 cricket to play and he has also got a lot of time where we can build up his workload and see that he is 100% fit,” Gibson said. “He is Dale Steyn. He is not some average guy from down the road. He is one of the best bowlers the country has ever produced. If you look him in the eyes and you say, ‘Dale are you sure you can make it?’ and he says he can make it, then he is getting the opportunity.”
According to Gibson, South Africa can also look forward to a fully fit and committed Morne Morkel, when international action resumes. Currently nursing a side strain, Morkel had previously said he would decide his future once he knew if he would be part of South Africa’s 2019 World Cup plans and he admitted to being open to exploring options elsewhere. In his discussions with Morkel, Gibson established that the bowler will stay in South Africa and do everything he can to secure a spot in the World Cup squad.
“Morne is pretty committed to the Proteas over the next couple of years,” Gibson said. “Obviously, the World Cup is a big thing. He is well aware that there can be no guarantees with regards to that. When it comes to 2019, it will be form, fitness, conditions that sort of that. We had a good, honest discussion and he has committed his future to us over the next couple of years.”
Morkel is due to resume playing towards the latter half of the franchise T20, but national captain Faf du Plessis may miss the entire tournament as he recovers from two niggles. Du Plessis was ruled out of the T20s against Bangladesh when he injured his back during the third ODI. At the same time, he has had a shoulder operation for a long-standing concern which should not delay his comeback ahead of the international season in which Gibson is looking forward to working with him again.
“We have a really nice relationship; he is a nice guy,” Gibson said of du Plessis. “He is very passionate about playing for his country and leading his country. When he is back, he will be a lean, mean fighting machine.”
While the experienced players make their way back, Gibson also expressed his excitement over the youngsters who were blooded during the Bangladesh series. He hopes to see more of them, especially at the limited-overs level, in which South Africa will continue to experiment, with an eye on preparations leading up to the World Cup.
“Aiden Markram is a real talent and he has started really well. Hopefully, he will be able to carry on that form for the rest of the summer. And then young Wiaan Mulder came in; I saw him, I liked him, I spoke to the selectors about him. It was a good opportunity to get him around us in the Test series so he can get a feel for what international cricket is all about,” Gibson said.
“I think there is a message in that for every young cricketer and every sort of high-performing cricketer in the country. Look at Robbie Frylinck – he got a debut in T20s. When I asked around the country about one-day players, everybody said he is one of the best white-ball cricketers in the country. It’s only fair that if we are going to widen the pool that we look at him. When you are picking a team for international cricket, you can only pick 11 people and sometimes a lot of people feel like they are not part of it. We are trying to widen the pool of opportunities to give as many as possible an opportunity.”
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo’s South Africa correspondent
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