MANCHESTER - When it comes to playing the percentages, South Africa’s skipper Faf du Plessis is quite specific about Vernon Philander - it’s 100 percent or bust.
Philander and percentages have dominated the second half of this Test series with England. A 50 percent Philander, said Du Plessis after the defeat at The Oval, is still better than most bowlers.
Philander’s own assessment of his performance in the third Test was that he operated at between 70 and 80 percent of his usual intensity. Du Plessis said on Thursday that Philander would undergo a fitness test.
Following an ankle injury at Lord’s - he also got hit on the hand - he picked up that viral infection at The Oval and now, ahead of the fourth Test, he’s got a “tight back”. A bit like the Manchester weather - when it comes to Philander’s fitness, it never just rains ...
Where the percentages arise again for Du Plessis is the difference between a 100 percent Philander and a 90 percent Philander.
“Vernon at 100 percent fit means we can look at playing three seamers and play seven batters. Vernon at 90 percent doesn’t mean you can play three seamers because you don’t want to be in a position where you have a seamer break down and then you only have two, because that is basically the Test match over right there.”
South Africa took a massive risk with the 50 percent version of Philander at The Oval and it backfired - with the series on the line that’s a mistake they don’t want to make here.
If Philander comes through at 100 percent, then Theunis de Bruyn will return to the starting side, most likely in place of Chris Morris - if Philander is only at 90 percent, expect the same side that played the last two Tests to start on Friday.
Du Plessis doesn’t feel that the team requires the same number of changes as occurred following the defeat at Lord’s. Between the first Test and the match at Trent Bridge, South Africa made three changes in personnel and moved Quinton de Kock from No 7 to No 4.
“The changes we made from the first Test were in areas where I felt we were a little bit short. Obviously we changed from seven batters to four seamers which was new for us as a Test team. And then it worked really well in the second game and in the previous game didn’t work as well as we would have liked. I understand that that change is in its infant stages, it’s really really new to the team, we’ve been playing seven batters and three seamers for the last three years, which worked well.”
Philander is central to the South African team now, not just because of his supreme ability with the new ball, but also his batting.
In a starting team with a six-five batsmen bowler split, he fills the No 7 spot and his runs are almost as important as wickets. Of course if Morris starts then Du Plessis has to make do with some inconsistency, although he’d like the gap between Morris’s good showings and his bad ones to shrink.
“We are a team that is still searching for the perfect combination. I’ll be very honest, we are not there yet, we are still looking for our strongest 11.”
Whatever the balance of the team however, South Africa’s batsmen need to show a drastic improvement if this final Test is to be won.
“As a batting unit we understand what we need to do. It’s just about making sure you get a start in bowling-friendly conditions, where it’s always a bit harder. Once you get in it’s really important to take that score from 20 or 30 to 120.”
The weather is expected to be a major player in this final Test too. For the first day the forecast is mostly good, but rain has been predicted for various stages of the match.
“With the weather like this, it speeds up play a bit because there is a lot more happening. Even if there is a bit of rain around and it becomes a four-day game, I think there will still be enough for both teams to get a result.”