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Cricket news - Wanderers braced for goodbyes and a hello
"I have committed until the T20 WC. There isn't a lot of Test cricket left this year" - Faf du Plessis
Brace yourself, Wanderers, for Vernon Philander's final Test. And for Temba Bavuma's return. And for something else. Asked on Monday if the fourth Test against England, which starts at the Wanderers on Friday, could be his last on home soil, Faf du Plessis said, "Yes, most definitely. It is a possibility."
Philander's retirement, announced before the series, is old news. Bavuma's comeback was all but assured when he followed first-class scores of nine and 17 with 180. But Du Plessis seemed as secure in the captain's saddle as he could be at the helm of a team who have lost seven of their last eight Tests.
Not least because there is no viable alternative for the leadership. Even so, or perhaps because of that, it's not easy being Du Plessis. Half the country is on his back about his batting - he scored the last of his nine centuries 16 innings ago - and the other half about his leadership. Wouldn't life be better if he walked away from all that?
"The worst thing a leader can do is pull the plug mid-series and say, 'Sorry boys, I'm out. I've had enough.' I don't think that's what leadership is about. You have to stick through the tough times as well." Hashim Amla's ears must be on fire: he quit the captaincy in January 2016, midway through England's previous series in South Africa. Du Plessis, it seems, is made of different stuff.
"I felt that the team has needed a leader to stand up and try and guide the ship through a difficult time. If you leave the team when they need you most, that's not my style. I have been under pressure a lot of times as a player and I've come through those times. In tough circumstances, I've played my best innings under pressure. I think that speaks for itself that I can't leave the team when they need me most, as one of the leaders in the team. I can't do it forever and it has been chipping away at my character. For now, that's what we need. I think it will make it worse if I say I'm out."
Fine words from a thoroughly good bloke, but there's no doubting that Test cricket is currently Du Plessis' weakest suit. Only Quinton de Kock scored more runs than he did in whites in 2019. Since Boxing Day, De Kock, Dean Elgar, Rassie van der Dussen, Philander and Pieter Malan have all been more successful than their captain.
In his trips to the crease after his most recent Test hundred, 103 against Pakistan at Newlands in January 2019, Du Plessis averages 30.33 - more than 10 points below his career mark of 40.23. His one-day average in the same period, 67.83, is almost 20 points above his overall figure of 47.47. He has played only two T20s in that time, scoring 58 and 23.
"After the T20 WC [in Australia in October and November], I'll reassess where I am. But Test cricket is the format that takes the most out of you and takes you way from home the most. And if, I'm brutally honest with myself, at the moment white-ball cricket is where I am most successful. One-day cricket my stats are up there with the best in the world. T20 cricket, my stats are up there. But, in Test cricket, my stats are not where they need to be. As a batting unit, the standards need to be better and I am not meeting the standards as a player."
So here's what, probably, happens from here: Du Plessis relinquishes the one-day captaincy as soon as Tuesday, when the squad for the three matches in that format against England is due to be named. He hangs onto the T20 leadership until the World Cup. The Test captaincy? After the Wanderers, South Africa's next engagement is two matches in West Indies in July. In other words, Du Plessis - and the suits - don't need to think about that now.
"I have committed until the T20 WC. There isn't a lot of Test cricket left this year; one massive Test where we need everyone to be as strong as possible to try and draw the series, and after that there is quite a big gap, and I have said before there is an opportunity then to release some of the captaincy when it comes to giving guys opportunities, especially in one-day cricket, to make sure we look forward to the future. Probably after [the West Indies series] Test cricket will be something that won't see me. That's a decision I will only fully will make then. For me now it's to be as mentally strong as possible because we need our leaders, our senior players in the team. We need to be strong. It's a tough time for all of us and we need to make sure we fight. Personally, from a runs point of view, I am not up to the level that I should be but I still have a huge role to play as a captain to make sure I lift these guys up to win a Test match in the next game."
Ah, the next game. About that: "[Bavuma] did what we said he should do: he scored runs. So we'll have to see how we are going to get him back into the team because we lack confidence in our batting line-up. And about Philander: "We haven't yet spoken to the Wanderers groundsman, but we're looking for something that will keep Vernon in the game. As we saw [at St George's Park], he wasn't really a factor because the pitch was too slow."
Philander bowled only 16 of the 152 overs South Africa sent down in Port Elizabeth and went wicketless for 41. The Wanderers, where his bowling average, 15.69, or the lowest among all the grounds where he has played more than five Tests, will serve him better. It is also Bavuma's home ground. What will it give Du Plessis? South Africa have won two of the three Wanderers Tests they have played under him and he has scored two centuries there. Brace yourself, Wanderers. You may never have this chance again.
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