JOHANNESBURG – A cricket match, many hope, will break out at the Wanderers on Friday.
Given the way this series has gone however that maybe asking a bit much. There have been incidents on a stairwell, a brush of the shoulders, sledging and sandpaper. Demerit points have been dished out and percentages of match fees docked and in the last few days, three players have been banned and a coach has resigned.
“This series has been so draining,” Faf du Plessis remarked Thursday. Indeed, some cricket would actually be a relief.
The players have been stung by what Du Plessis described as the “blowout” in Australia, which he explained was also indicative of a broader reflection of the mood towards all the players – in both teams. “You see what it means for the public as they watch a game of cricket. All this nonsense away from the field is a reminder for everyone that it is taking too much attention away from the game,” he said.
“I would like to sit here and speak about Morne Morkel’s last Test, what he’s done, us as a team on the verge of creating history and we are spending so much time discussing other stuff.”
“I cannot imagine what it feels like in their dressing room. It’s important we don’t lose our mental edge in this last game because it is a huge game for us.”
Outgoing Australian coach Darren Lehmann said Wednesday that the tourists would not be “100% mentally.” For Matt Renshaw and Joe Burns, who are set to open the batting, it will be physical challenge too – the pair along with Glenn Maxwell who were flown in as replacements, checked into the team hotel late on Wednesday night – and will be battling jet-lag.
Following Lehmann’s tearful resignation, the Australian players conducted their sole training session ahead of the Test match in a surreal atmosphere at the Wanderers. A member of the team’s management gave a memory stick with lengthy music playlist to stadium management requesting it be played as the team practiced.
The playlist included some well-known Australian hits, along with some truly depressing tunes – the Bee Gees ‘New York Mining Disaster’ being one – as the players conducted fielding drills.
Lehmann described an emotional atmosphere in the touring camp particularly as they watched Steve Smith and Cameron Bancroft deliver emotional apologies upon landing at home on Friday morning.
For his part, Du Plessis said he had a lot of compassion for Smith, someone he knows well and whose company he clearly enjoys. “I do feel sorry for Steve, I have compassion for what he is going through. He is one of the good guys, he’s been caught in a bad place.
“I sent him a text, from a really deep place in my heart I feel for the guy, you don’t want to see guys going through that stuff and it’s going to be incredibly hard in the next few days. I just sent a message of support, saying he’ll get through it, just stay strong and he was really good, he appreciated the message. There’s a lot of respect between the two of us,” said Du Plessis.
Such has been the extreme nature of the reaction to events this week that it would come as no surprise if the match was played in a less acrimonious atmosphere than has been the case in the first three Tests.
Lehmann said the culture within the Australian team needed to change – citing that as one of the reasons for his resignation, while Du Plessis concurred with outgoing Australian coach that all teams could follow the example of the New Zealand team, who play the game the right way.
“Perhaps something like this shows (Australia) that it’s time to move in a different direction. Maybe the conversation from the top is that it’s time this (Australian) team changes its culture or identity. It’s a nice reminder for all of us to play in that spirit of the game,” said Du Plessis.
Warner’s absence would definitely help that atmosphere. “I don’t know David that well,” said Du Plessis. “This series has been quite fiery and a lot of the time he’s been in the middle of it. I haven’t heard what he’s said, it will be interesting to hear his thoughts.
It is a nice opportunity for him to reflect on how he plays the game, because I don’t think that’s the only way to win games of cricket…it’s a reminder that there’s not just one way. New Zealand don’t believe in that, and I think as a team we are on the same wavelength.”
Certainly both sets of players will be closely monitored. Australia, may have a mental hangover, but there is room for a response based on passion, which given the surreal atmosphere in which they trained Thursday, does seem to be running deep in a squad, that is hurting. “It’s about fronting up for your country and playing good cricket over the next five days,” Lehmann said about his side’s approach.
“It’s been an unbelievable series, obviously marred by a few incidents, but it’s great playing in South Africa. Two rival countries who play the game really hard, it’s been an exciting Test series, it’s going to be a big challenge but the boys will be doing everything they possibly can to play and make people proud of them.”
How they respond to the first bit of pressure put on them by South Africa will be telling. If they fold, the match could be over quickly, if they don’t then a classic encounter is in the offing, one that should be played in the right spirit and help with the healing and restoring of not only the Australian team’s image, but the game’s as well.
Plays starts at 10 am.
The squads for the fourth Test are:
Faf du Plessis (captain), Hashim Amla, Temba Bavuma, Theunis de Bruyn, Dean Elgar, Heinrich Klaasen, Quinton de Kock, Keshav Maharaj, Aiden Markram, Morne Morkel, Chris Morris, Wiaan Mulder, Lungi Ngidi, Duanne Olivier, Vernon Philander, Kagiso Rabada, AB de Villiers.
Joe Burns, Pat Cummins, Peter Handscomb, Josh Hazlewood, Jon Holland, Usman Khawaja, Nathan Lyon, Mitchell Marsh, Shaun Marsh, Glenn Maxwell, Tim Paine (captain), Matt Renshaw, Jhye Richardson, Chadd Sayers, Mitchell Starc.
Officials: Standing – Nigel Llong (Eng), Ian Gould (Eng). TV – Richard Illingworth (Eng).
Match Referee – Andy Pycroft (Zim)