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.

Suggested Topics
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there