Faf du Plessis will continue to captain South Africa despite overseeing one of their worst Test results since readmission – he sees it as his responsibility to ease them through the transition. South Africa last suffered successive innings defeats in Tests in 1935-36, and though they have been whitewashed by Australia twice since 1992, their defeats then were not as stark as they are now. Du Plessis, who has led the side since mid-2016, will not use the results as a reason to jump ship and wants to oversee a process that will enable a new leader to take over in due course.
“How I see my journey unfolding with this team is to help with the transition period,” du Plessis said at the press conference after the Ranchi Test. “That’s something we spoke about before that wasn’t necessarily the case before. Graeme Smith was a successful captain for a very long time and then after that, it was like, ‘what now, who is going to captain the side, what’s going to happen?’ This period is to try and make that process a bit smoother, identifying the next leaders, identifying the next captains, working with them, and then when that time is right, that time will be right.”
His reference to Smith and his golden generation will only make the India series’ result sting even more. It was under Smith that South Africa last won a Test in India, in 2010 and remained unbeaten in an away Test series for nine years. But earlier this year, South Africa lost a home Test series to Sri Lanka and now they haven’t merely lost in India, they have been outplayed and exposed, something du Plessis puts down to inexperience.
“I found the tour really tough,” he said. “We have had a very mature Test team for a while, guys that have played 30, 40 and more Test matches. Now you look in the dressing room and its five, six, seven, eight, ten Tests.”
South Africa’s most experienced player on this trip is du Plessis himself, with 61 Test caps, and only five of the 16-man squad had toured India before. Of those, Dean Elgar showed he has made some progress from 2015 by scoring a century, but Temba Bavuma did not. Similarly, in the bowling department Kagiso Rabada, who debuted in that series, showed flashes of brilliance but Vernon Philander, who was injured after one Test on the 2015 tour, didn’t. A combination of the inability to bowl out the opposition even once and a failure to bat big is how du Plessis summed up what went wrong.
“When we play in the subcontinent, our style of bowling is not successful. You have to adapt your style to the style that is required. Obviously, someone like Dale Steyn was effective in the subcontinent because he has a similar skill set. He is a skiddy bowler off the pitch, hits the stumps, whereas if you are missing the stumps a lot or bouncing it over the stumps, it’s not as effective here.
“Seam bowling is one area; spin they [India] were better than us and from a batting unit, exceptional ruthlessness in the way they put massive scores on the board. That’s one of the reasons why mentally we were so weak towards the end. Obviously, they did bat first every time, which made it easier but they still to put on 500, 500, 600 and the scoreboard pressure, the effect that it has on you mentally as a batting line-up, it takes a lot of energy and it takes a lot of toll. You just feel like there’s no opportunity or no moment in the game when you can hide. Your body is tired, your mind is tired and then you make mistakes.”
Mind games have long haunted South Africa, mostly at major tournaments but now even in the longer format and du Plessis believes its an area that needs improvement fast. “Our next journey is to try and make sure we get a lot stronger as a cricketing team mentally. As you can see, a tour like this reveals that there is a lot of mental scars that can happen and then obviously it’s difficult to come out of the hole. We played our best match in the first match and the consistent pressure that was on us made us weaker with every Test match that we played. It tells me we are not mentally strong as a team and that some work is required in that department.”
This tour is the first place du Plessis will look at when it comes to identifying who is mentally strong enough to keep playing at this level and who will form the next leadership group. “When you go through extreme hardships like this, in the hardships, you will still find guys that are up for Test cricket.”
Like who? Quinton de Kock scored one century, Keshav Maharaj was brave with ball and bat, Senuran Muthusamy showed all-round potential and Zubayr Hamza played one sprightly knock.
The same cannot automatically be applied to Bavuma, the man being groomed as du Plessis’ successor. He scored 96 runs in six innings and was moved down the order from No. 4 to 5, swapping places with du Plessis. His numbers suggest he is not ready to take over just yet, but his mindset reveals something else. In a revealing press conference in the second Test, Bavuma spoke frankly about his battle to convert and acknowledged that his best was not good enough at the moment. Like du Plessis, he recognised his responsibility and he knows what’s expected of him. For now, that’s all South Africa can ask for. It will take time before Bavuma is performing at the level required of a captain, or South Africa find someone else who is and no-one can say how much.
The next few months will not be easy as South Africa host England at home for four Tests. When the same sequence of fixtures was played four years ago, South Africa lost both series and their captain, Amla. This time, if du Plessis sticks to his word, they are are only at risk of the former.