LONDON – Is the return of Faf du Plessis enough of a balm for all of South Africa’s wounds?
This has already been a desperately bad tour for the Proteas. There’ve been defeats in the One-Day and T20 series to England, a pathetic set of performances in the Champions Trophy and now this – what stand-in captain Dean Elgar called a capitulation.
South Africa had managed against difficult odds to actually drag themselves back into the contest on Sunday morning thanks to some fine bowling from Morné Morkel and Keshav Maharaj.
England lost seven wickets for just 63 runs in the first session and Elgar admitted that at lunch time the team felt they had a chance of claiming an unlikely win.
However this was a first Test riddled with mistakes by the Proteas. And while over the course of five days (or in this case four), one wouldn’t expect everything to run perfectly, the howlers South Africa committed in this match were costly in the extreme. Another one on Sunday afternoon, proved to be another turning point.
Vernon Philander dropped Jonny Bairstow when he had five. Whether it was because of concerns about his damaged hand or if ‘spider-cam’ had distracted him, it was a bad miss. Bairstow took advantage and England stretched their lead beyond what Elgar referred to as the psychologically significant 300-run mark.
Of course given that pitiful second innings batting performance, it didn’t matter what the target was. But Philander’s miss was illustrative of how costly South Africa’s errors were over the course of this match.
Joe Root was dropped twice and stumped off a no-ball, Ben Stokes was also bowled off no-ball – all of that happened on the first day after South Africa had reduced England to 82/4 at lunch.
On the second day there was the terrible bowling strategy adopted for England’s last two batsmen when Morkel just bowled bouncers with the field back and gave Stuart Broad and James Anderson freebies.
With the bat South Africa saw four batsmen get past 50 in their first innings, but none of them turned it into a hundred. Then came Philander’s miss. The first three wickets in the second innings were gifts.
The rest of the batting order folded in the face of Moeen Ali’s spin. England didn’t have to do anything remarkable to win this game and that is going to be galling for the Proteas.
Du Plessis had arrived back with the team on Sunday and immediately set off for the nets with batting coach Neil McKenzie. He needs to find rhythm quickly for South Africa’s batting has been in some trouble for the best part of a year.
The likes of Elgar, Quinton de Kock and to a lesser extent Temba Bavuma have masked those problems with some superb performances in Hobart, Perth and Wellington, but the lack of consistency for a large part of the batting unit is alarming.
Certainly JP Duminy, a good team man by all accounts, has played his last Test. Yesterday’s 14-minute stay at the crease made for painful viewing.
He stared at his bat as Moeen celebrated catching him at square leg with the look of someone who knows his time is up.
Dropping Duminy is not the panacea to all of the Proteas’ problems, of course. This is team that needs to take a long hard look at itself. It needs Du Plessis leadership, his composure and toughness. And it needs him to score runs.
The next few days are going to be hugely important.