Proteas captain Faf du Plessis speaks to the media during a press conference ahead of the first Test match against England at SuperSport Park in Centurion beginning on Boxing Day. Photo: Christiaan Kotze/BackpagePix

JOHANNESBURG – At least two, possibly three debutants could start for the Proteas in the first Test against England at SuperSport Park on Thursday.

South Africa’s captain Faf du Plessis confirmed on Tuesday that Rassie van der Dussen would make his first start in whites in place of the injured Temba Bavuma, while Dwaine Pretorius had beat out Andile Phehlukwayo for the all-rounder spot. The decision about who would be the third frontline seamer out of Beuran Hendricks, Anrich Nortje and Dane Paterson would be determined by conditions and should Hendricks or Paterson get the nod, it would mean the Proteas have handed out eight debut caps in the last four Test matches.

Starting Pretorius will provide the team with much-needed balance. “It feels like the make-up of the side needs another bowler, who can give us 10 overs like Ben Stokes and can bat in the top 7,” said Du Plessis. “The focus is runs, he needs to play as a top order batsman, his second role is to bowl.’

Du Plessis has seen Pretorius up close in the last month as a teammate at the Paarl Rocks in the Mzansi Super League, where the 30 year old all-rounder produced some outstanding performances with both bat and ball.

Du Plessis once again paid tribute to the team’s new coaching staff for instilling a more positive environment, although he is aware, that all that talk will mean little if his side don’t start well on Boxing Day. “You’re sitting here now going, ‘why haven’t these guys been here for the last 10 years?’ It’s so important to have people like that in an international dressing room,” said Du Plessis. “If you look around other teams have got that, the Australian team is an example, we played against them and they had Langer, Ponting, Waugh…and we want that, we need that. This is a fresh start.”

The players have felt confident about their preparation even though it hasn’t included a four-day match, but confidence off the field, needs to be backed up performances on it. “We need to start well. We’ve been training very well, and all the things off the field that’s been happening is very good. We’ve got to get the belief back through performances. A good hundred will lift the confidence of the batting unit. We have to get through this Test with some good performances to really lift that confidence.”

England’s preparation has not been good either and there was further bad news for them on Tuesday when Ben Stokes’ father was admitted to hospital with a “serious illness.” “ He remains in a critical condition,” according to an ECB statement.

Stokes was by his father’s bedside at a Johannesburg hospital on Tuesday. It does place the match-winning all-rounder’s spot in England’s starting team in serious jeopardy, although that was the furthest thing from Joe Root’s mind. “It puts things in perspective,” said the England captain. “We are here to play cricket, good hard cricket and to win the series, but most important as a squad we want to make sure Ben and his family have all the support he needs.”

After a week in which many of their bowlers struggled with a flu-bug, another went down on Tuesday when Chris Woakes was also forced to stay in bed back at the team’s hotel. “It’s been quite frustrating in many ways,” said Root. “We have to handle it and make sure the guys who are selected are ready to go and hopefully win this first game.”

It’s certainly a massive change in the fortunes of both teams. While England’s Test form this year has been inconsistent at least they came into this series in rhythm following a tour to New Zealand where they played two Tests, while they’ve also had a lot of three day matches both here and in New Zealand. Most of South Africa’s last played a first class match in India in the third Test there. How much this week’s illnesses have hit tourists and the impact it has had will only be determined on Thursday.

They have enough playing personnel – the arrival last week of Craig Overton and Dominic Bess swelled their playing staff to 19 and means they have enough options from which to choose.

But it means that whereas they were overwhelming favourites 10 days ago, the mayhem in the camp along with South Africa feeling better about themselves means the first session on Boxing Day will certainly be worth watching.

@shockerhess

IOL Sport