When to pick youth - simple as A B and see

De Villiers' heroics show a different policy.

When A B de Villiers left the field at Durban the other gloomy night he had batted for two hours and 17 minutes, faced 95 balls to repel the rampant tourists and effectively saved his team. Nobody was remotely surprised. Indeed, it was as if it was almost expected, so unfussily did he go about the task.

De Villiers, a stripling of 20, was in his second Test match. He looked entirely at home, as he had from ball one of his debut at Port Elizabeth a few days before. A B - he is named Abraham Benjamin but known to all by his initials - is to the manner born all right. Everybody who has seen him perform in these past two matches, first as opening batsman, then as wicketkeeper and No 7, expects his career to run all the way to Z.

His patent grasp of technique and temperament prompted musing on when a player is ready for the cauldron. Only a day earlier, Andrew Strauss, an England hero, had put it into perspective. He has made four centuries since coming into the team last summer, but he was 27 when he was first picked.

"There is no way I would have been ready when I was 23 because I didn't know my own game nearly well enough," Strauss said. "I was hardly sure of a place in the Middlesex side, and got to know my batting by scoring runs year by year. When I was selected I felt as though I recognised what my strengths and weaknesses were, what to play and what not to play, where to play and where not to play."

Strauss is an articulate man who has clearly thought (successfully) about how a Test innings should be constructed. He is also evidence that England are now willing to wait for players rather than throw them in too soon and risk their talent being wasted. This has probably stemmed directly from the establishment of the National Acad-emy - of which Strauss was an inaugural-year student - which gives cricketers a genuine opportunity to develop their game.

De Villiers has no such introspection. Before his debut he was asked about the prospect of facing Stephen Harmison, and without belittling the threat made it perfectly clear he was just another bowler. If he was worried about not knowing his own game he did not show it, and it did not show.

England's last debutant, Ian Bell, was only 22 when he played against West Indies in September. That might seem to give the lie to the age theory, but Bell started young, he was always destined to be a professional cricketer and in circumstances that once prevailed might have been picked two years earlier - too soon.

As recently as last August, his county captain, Nick Knight, advocated caution. "He is going to be very, very good but he mustn't be picked too soon for his own good. He is getting there, he really is, but wait a little longer, I say."

The likelihood is that England players will be kept waiting longer in future, not least because it is hard to break into a winning team. Of the XI who drew in Durban, only one made his debut before he was 22, and that was definitely too early for Andrew Flintoff. It is not being too dramatic to suggest that it could have ruined a great career before it began.

It could also be said with hindsight that James Anderson was also picked too soon. He made a huge impact but had bowled so few professional overs that when poor form struck he had nothing to fall back on. Some are suggesting that Anderson is finished already, which is crazy, as he is still only 22. What Anderson almost certainly needs is more bowling to learn his craft.

Pertinent or not, England's three specialist fast bowlers in Durban were all 23 when they made their debut, an age Anderson does not reach until July. Troy Cooley, England's fast bowling coach, has said: "Fast bowlers do not start coming into their own until they are 24. That is when the combination of skill and growing into your body meets." The best fast bowler for 10 years has been Glenn McGrath. He was nearly 24 when he first played for Australia.

But not everybody goes along with the tendency to think slightly older. Of the side who last represented India in a Test, early in December, five had been teenagers on debut and the oldest debutant was the captain, Sourav Ganguly, at 23. Pakistan go young traditionally, and their opening pair in the last defeat against Australia could not muster 40 between them when they started out.

Similarly, South Africa love to embrace youth. Two players in last week's team, Jacques Kallis and Makhaya Ntini, made their debuts at a slightly younger age than De Villiers and in all, nine of the 11 were picked before their 23rd birthdays. As an aside it is mischievously interesting to reflect that Kevin Pietersen left South Africa to throw in his lot with England because he was fearful of the opportunities for young white cricketers in the country of his birth. De Villiers and the 21-year-old Dale Steyn may not agree.

It looks as though A B is just one of those naturals. He played scratch golf as a teenager, is an accomplished fly-half and gave up tennis at 13 after playing for South Africa Schools. Just one cautionary note: he was 20 years and 304 days when he made his debut, only 14 days older than the long-term occupant of the wicketkeeper-batsman's role he has effectively replaced, Mark Boucher. And Boucher is still only 28.

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