Tsolekile's quiet display an eloquent riposte to critics

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The Independent Online

Unwitting observers might have been astonished at the impeccable display given yesterday by South Africa's new wicketkeeper. Had they listened to some of the barbs in the days before the first Test, they would have suspected that Thami Tsolekile could not keep pigeons.

Unwitting observers might have been astonished at the impeccable display given yesterday by South Africa's new wicketkeeper. Had they listened to some of the barbs in the days before the first Test, they would have suspected that Thami Tsolekile could not keep pigeons.

His selection for the match and for his country's two-Test tour of India last month was so contentious that it was rapidly becoming a cause célèbre. Mark Boucher had made the place his own, having kept wicket in 75 consecutive Test matches. No South African has had a longer run, so Tsolekile was usurping an institution. It wasn't exactly storming the Bastille, but it was definitely lobbing a few missiles in its direction.

After Boucher had received the necessary kick up the backside that his omission for the tour represented, it was widely but misguidedly assumed that he would be recalled. Tsolekile, who still lives in a Cape Town township, was regarded as no more or less than a politically correct caretaker.

To widespread surprise, the selectors held firm on his inclusion. But when Ray Jennings, the team coach and himself a former wicketkeeper, made it clear that he preferred Boucher it was inevitable that Tsolekile would probably be expected to keep wicket like Alan Knott, bat like Don Bradman and perform a song and dance act between innings if he wished to prolong his presence in the team.

He has not quite fulfilled that requirement but he has conducted himself admirably. On the eve of the match, Graeme Smith, the home team's captain, said that Tsolekile had the full trust of the whole team, a pointed rebuff to Jennings' opinion. Tsolekile composed a battling 22 when South Africa hit trouble in their first innings and shared a precious stand of 80 for the eighth wicket.

Throughout England's innings, he gave an exemplary performance behind the stumps. A measure of his considerable class was that he was barely noticeable. The best keepers never are. It would have been surprising to see him let the ball through his legs and hit the helmet placed behind him, thus conceding five penalty runs, as England's wicketkeeper Geraint Jones did late in the day.

England made 425 and South Africa conceded 57 extras, beating their own previous record. But there were no byes. In the heat of Calcutta last month when India made 411, Tsolekile kept a similar clean sheet, something only one wicketkeeper before him had done at Eden Gardens in such a high total.

He took two catches which were straightforward enough and might have had three if yet another no ball had not been signalled. (Tsolekile made his only mistake there, releasing the ball in celebration having not seen the signal and allowing England to take another run).

Mostly, his gloves caressed the ball and his seamless endeavours played their quiet role in pulling South Africa back into the match.

It was a smart day's work. And yet it is not difficult to discern that some of the criticisms of his presence in the team derive from a belief that he is there only because he is black and helps to maintain an unofficial quota. There is resentment, often unstated, at the perception, completely unfounded, that black players are given preference in selection meetings.

Tsolekile has earned his Test place through five years of provincial cricket. His batting average is a respectable 25.80 - but has to improve - and this season he scored his maiden first-class century.

Boeta Dippenaar said of him the other day: "He is a very talented cricketer and he can stand on his own two feet. That has been overshadowed by the controversy of his selection."

His competence was clear. Ray Jennings might have spotted it.

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