Thu, 20 Feb 2020

Cape Town - When the Proteas finished day four of the second Test against England on 126/2 in pursuit of 438 last Sunday, they knew they needed something special on day five to save the match.

With the win never really on the cards, the focus quickly turned to salvaging what would have been a famous and heroic draw.

In the end, the hosts fell 50 balls short despite gutsy efforts from debutant Pieter Malan (84 off 288), Rassie van der Dussen (17 off 140) and Quinton de Kock (50 off 107).

Overnight, before that deciding fifth day, skipper Faf du Plessis was identified as one South African batsman with the ability to play the long, patient innings that the Proteas so desperately needed.

He has done it before, offering a wall of resilient defence when his side has needed him most, but it was not to be on this day.

Having shown all the right mental ingredients during a 79-minute stay at the crease, Du Plessis threw it all away with a momentary lapse in concentration that saw him slap a sweep shot of off-spinner Dom Bess straight to square leg.

At a time when application and maturity were needed, Du Plessis let his side down in what he later acknowledged as a "mental error".

It is, of course, grossly unfair to dump the blame for the loss at Du Plessis' door alone, but his experience and track record at this level command a certain expectation.

A closer look at the captain's recent Test returns, however, suggest that he has been struggling for consistency for some time now while scores of 29, 20, 1 and 19 in this series have seen his average dip to 40.62 in the format.

With the series moving to Port Elizabeth for what is a crucial third Test, Du Plessis finds himself under pressure suddenly to deliver much-needed runs in a top order that is short on Test experience.

Opener Malan has played one Test, No 3 Zubayr Hamza has played four while Van der Dussen has played just two. Du Plessis, with 63 Test caps to his name, needs to be the spine.

Du Plessis also came in for some criticism at Newlands over his captaincy and, particularly, his decision against taking the new ball in England's second innings.

Ben Stokes (72 off 47) took the game away from the Proteas that morning as Du Plessis' tactics came under the spotlight, but other results in 2019 have also raised eyebrows.

A 2-0 loss to Sri Lanka in a home Test series last February and then a 3-0 hammering in India in September saw Du Plessis guide the Proteas to five successive Test defeats for only the second time since readmission.

It all contributed to a woeful 2019 for the national side, with Du Plessis also in charge of a World Cup campaign that never got out of first gear.

Du Plessis' ODI future is in doubt, with the likeliest outcome that he will retire from that format, while he has still not received official backing to lead the side to the T20 World Cup in Australia next year.

Despite all of that, Du Plessis has won 18 of his 34 Test matches as captain for a win percentage of 52.94% that places him ahead of every South African Test skipper since readmission with the exception of Shaun Pollock (14 out of 26, 53.84%) and AB de Villiers (2 out of 3, 66%).

Along the way, Du Plessis has guided the Proteas to important series wins against Australia - home and away - and India at home.

Significantly, Du Plessis has remained committed to South African cricket at a time when it would have been easy to walk away and join the global T20 circuit in the search of more rewarding financial gains.

At this crucial period of renewal in Proteas cricket, coach Mark Boucher can at least lean on the fact that he has a seasoned captain at the helm who understands the importance of leaving the state of the game in good hands when he does call it a day.

A succession plan needs to form part of the immediate thinking. Who is next in line to lead this Test side? It is a conversation that should happen sooner, rather than later, but for now Du Plessis' credentials as captain should not be questioned. He possesses too much in the way of experience and intellectual property.

Where he does need to step up is in the runs department, and he will know that better than anyone.

His last Test century came 16 innings ago while he averages just 29.61 over his last two years of Test cricket.

Right now, the Proteas need Du Plessis the batsman just as much as they need Du Plessis the captain.

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