MANCHESTER – It’s been a year since Faf du Plessis was appointed as Test captain against New Zealand – then still on an interim basis – but South Africa is still no closer to having a settled Test unit despite some great success in that period.
It’s a credit to Du Plessis that he can point to a record as captain that includes series wins in Australia and New Zealand with a side who aren’t sure how to play their best cricket yet.
In that time, they have had to deal with not knowing if one of the best players the country has ever produced – AB de Villiers – still wants to play Test cricket and if Dale Steyn’s body, specifically his shoulder, will allow him to bowl anymore.
Added to those significant issues in this series with England that concludes Tuesday, they are playing with an opener that doesn’t look cut out for the job, possibly a new No 4 batsman (the third different player to occupy the position in this series), the current most valuable player out injured and a bowling attack featuring a seamer who is also playing in just his third Test.
Oh, and the tour to England’s been extremely long – the results in the limited-overs matches have been wretched – and the head coach doesn’t know if he’ll still be occupying that position next week.
“On the whole, I don’t think this has been a good tour for us,” said Du Plessis with great understatement. And yet there is still an opportunity to draw the series, and thus leave England with at least some happy memories.
Du Plessis is not convinced that saying the Test team are in transition is the right phrase. “We haven’t settled on what we want to be as a Test team. The big one for me is the four seamers versus the seven batsmen,” he said.
And it’s a critical difference. In the first age of Graeme Smith’s successful stint as Test captain – 2008 to 2011 – the Proteas used a six-four batsmen-bowler split, with Mark Boucher as wicket-keeper, to achieve their triumphs in England and Australia.
The top six batsmen were contracted to make 300 runs, the bowlers at that point Steyn, Morné Morkel, Makhaya Ntini and left-arm spinner Paul Harris – with a bit of help from Jacques Kallis – had to take the 20 wickets.
By the second age of the Smith captaincy (from 2012 to 2014), with Gary Kirsten as coach, the team shifted to seven front-line batsmen – Kallis still a crucial component and De Villiers now the gloveman. Again, they won in England and Australia.
But a year into Du Plessis’s tenure as captain, it isn’t clear which structure they wish to utilise. They won using the seven front-line batsmen in Australia last season and continued to do so against Sri Lanka and in New Zealand.
However at Lord’s, with Du Plessis absent, they got smashed and for the second Test at Trent Bridge made drastic changes away from that structure.
Seven batsmen became six, two all-rounders were used – Philander and Chris Morris – and victory was achieved by 340 runs.
A week later that same team were smashed again, by 239 runs.
“When you play in South African conditions, with the ball moving around a bit, you can play three seamers and Kesh (Maharaj), and you can do that in England as well. But you need to know that your bowlers are 100 percent fit,” says Du Plessis.
Philander hasn’t been fit for three out of four Tests in this series, and it’s impacted on what structure to create with the starting team and thus which personnel to select.
“It was a new role for Chris – so you leave a batsmen out and he becomes almost a batter because he’s a fourth seamer that must score runs, and number eight in Test cricket is always in the game.
“What Chris brings is intensity, which he showed in that second Test. In the third Test he was inconsistent and you’re going to have to expect that from him; he’s still learning.
“There’s a big difference between your Steyns, Morkels, Rabadas and the rest of the bowlers – that’s why those guys are up at the top, because they are consistent. So we have to give (Morris) time to get better in that role.”
What is clear is Philander’s importance to the side. He needs to be fit and able to sustain that fitness throughout a series.
A fit Philander allows the selectors to almost utilise a ‘horses-for-courses’ approach. “Vern’s batting has improved a lot, and so he deserves a crack at batting at seven,” said Du Plessis.
“With the extra responsibility, he can become a real all-rounder. I said it as a joke, we call him Kallis in the team, but his runs are runs really important."
“And if you drop another batsman, then your seven and eight need to score runs. And vice versa if you play seven batsmen, you need someone who can bowl 10 to 12 overs as a part-timer – whether that is Theunis or Temba or Dean, you have to find a guy that is best suited to bowling those overs.”
Philander fits into both those structures and is in fact the central figure – which is why there is so much angst about him seemingly wanting to sit out at the merest hint of a physical problem.
As the Test team move forward, there are areas that urgently need resolution. The batting is a major concern, especially finding a long-term partner for Dean Elgar at the top of the order.
Heino Kuhn, for all his qualities, is not that player and Aiden Markram must be given a starting spot for the Tests against Bangladesh.
Someone needs to cement the No 4 spot and hopefully Bavuma is given an extended run in that position, while it looks for now at least that Theunis de Bruyn may have to settle himself with being satisfied that he might only play when Philander is 100 percent fit.
It’s hardly a settled Test unit, and it speaks volumes for Du Plessis tactical nous and the resourcefulness of a number of players, especially Elgar, Maharaj, Bavuma, De Kock and Rabada that South Africa have been as successful as they have been in the last year.
A new coach will be appointed later this month and for all the talk of World Cups and ICC trophies, he faces as big a challenge building a stable Test side.