Danyal Rasool in Centurion
While Sarfraz Ahmed had yesterday all but spelled out his intentions at the toss – bat first and, even more importantly, avoid batting last – Faf du Plessis was much more reserved in his judgement. Recalling the Centurion Test match against India in January, he talked about how South Africa had prepared for a green pitch, only for the grass to burn dead, flattening it out completely and bringing the spinners into play.
“I just like clarity when preparing for a Test match at home,” du Plessis said, appearing mildly peeved at the lack of certainty. “It gives you the option of sometimes looking to play four seamers, especially when subcontinent teams get here. But the nature of the wickets, especially after what happened last year, you have to play the spinner.
“It’s not as simple as winning the toss and batting first. The pitch has changed here so on the day you have to see if there’s enough grass on the wicket, you might bowl first instead. I’ll make that decision on the morning of the match.”
It isn’t the only issue South Africa have to contend with as they kick off the home season with the two marquee Boxing Day and New Year Tests. Hashim Amla has been South Africa’s most reliable batsman over the best part of the last decade, but his sharp dip in form leaves vulnerable a top order that had often been considered bulletproof over the years. In the last 10 Tests, Amla has averaged just 23, less than half his career average of 47.
Even so, du Plessis fully backed Amla to come good, and revealed he would return to his usual batting position at No. 3. The 35-year old had moved down a slot when the South Africans toured Sri Lanka in July.
“Hash is our number 3, he’s been there forever and is our rock at number 3. There was a reason behind moving him to 4 in Sri Lanka. It was to have our more experienced players playing against spin there. Theinus [de Bruyn] came in at 3 because he was a new player and it gave him the best opportunity at facing a harder ball, which is easier in the subcontinent. But we’ll be back to our normal batting lineup, which means Hash at 3.”
In the absence of Amla’s usually sizzling form, du Plessis paid warm tribute to the contributions of Dean Elgar and Aiden Markram, praising them for stepping up for South Africa over the last 18 months.
“The opening pair has proven a massive weapon for us in Test cricket. In the last season and a half, they’ve got us to really good starts. Pakistan have got tremendous bowling attack which is in really good form. So our success will definitely get measured on the form of our batters. So hopefully we have two or three batters who can have a good series.”
The fitness doubts over Temba Bavuma also make for another layer of uncertainty for the hosts, but du Plessis praised uncapped Zubayr Hamza as a “guy who had a good head on his shoulders”, confirming he would slot straight into the team should Bavuma fail a late fitness test.
It once more brings the situation regarding the No. 7 spot into focus, and the inability of the hosts to put a seam-bowling allrounder there. Quinton de Kock plays No. 7 for now, but if South Africa can find a genuine allrounder, the wicketkeeper-batsman would move up a position, allowing the allrounder to slot in. It is a vacancy South Africa have struggled to fill since the retirement of Jacques Kallis, forcing them to simply play seven specialist batsmen and four specialist bowlers.
“In an ideal world you need a No. 7 who can bat and be a fourth seamer,” du Plessis admitted. “But our balance doesn’t allow us that and therefore we have to go with three seamers, a spinner and seven batsmen. But yes, in an ideal world, I still think the perfectly balanced Test team has an allrounder at No. 7, so you have five bowlers you can use.”
It may sound all doom and gloom, but this is South Africa at home after all, and du Plessis’s men are heavily fancied to wrap up this series at the earliest opportunity. Du Plessis might have cut a somewhat subdued figure for much of the press conference, but lit up when he spoke of playing the Boxing Day Test in Centurion, with his family living a short drive away in Pretoria.
“Boxing Day and New Year’s Day Tests are the two prime Test matches for us as the Proteas. It’s fantastic to see people when they’re on holiday and they come out and support you.
“There’s a lot of Titans guys in the dressing room so they’re familiar with the conditions here. It’s really nice for me every time I come to play here too. All my family lives in Pretoria, and it’ll be the first time I’ve spent Christmas at home in about 15 years. It’ll be a nice thing to have and I know some of the other Titans guys will enjoy that same intensity.”