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Cricket news - Two days for South Africa to climb the mountain

The mountain won't come to Faf du Plessis...

The mountain won't come to Faf du Plessis...

A lot can happen in 44 days. That's time enough to cross the Sahara by camel three times. Or to traverse the Atlantic in a yacht and arrive with two weeks to spare, even if the wind dies. Or to walk from Sydney to Melbourne, there and back, twice. But it's not enough to climb Everest. That takes 64 days.

So we shouldn't expect South Africa to be near the summit of the mountain they started to climb 44 days ago when Graeme Smith and Mark Boucher sat with Enoch Nkwe and Linda Zondi at a press conference at Newlands and convinced many they knew how to get to the summit. That acting director of cricket Smith, head coach Boucher and batting and bowling consultants Kallis and Charl Langeveldt played 436 Tests between them means they are experienced. It doesn't necessarily mean they are any good at guiding succeeding generations to success. It also doesn't mean they won't be: who in South African cricket is better qualified?

But, by the look of things after three difficult days at the Wanderers - which followed five difficult days at St George's Park, which came after five difficult days at Newlands - they are leading their charges down the mountain, not up.

The game has changed since the new regime played at the international level, even in the not quite six years since Smith retired. Boucher admitted exactly that in the wake of Kagiso Rabada being banned for the fourth Test for getting in Joe Root's face. First Boucher said players of his era spoke more freely on the field. Then he said he "wasn't aware of the demerit points; that whole system and how it works". There's this website, 'Bouch'. Smith has, more than once and as recently as Thursday, answered valid questions about his role by pointing out how new he is in the job. You're seven weeks away from the end of your current contract, 'Biff', and even if it is renewed it's time you got a grip. These criticisms are not meant as cheap shots. Nobody wants to see positively committed people falter. But they have to create for themselves the best opportunities to achieve their goals. If they don't, failure is assured. Smith and Boucher know all about how to do that as players. They aren't players anymore.

If Cricket South Africa (CSA) assumed all they had to do to fix the game's problems was appoint people like Smith, Boucher, Kallis and Langeveldt, and then sit back and watch improvement role in like a high tide, they are even more inept than we think. The bigger picture is far brighter since their arrival. But altering the course cricket was forced onto under CSA's previous set of suits will take far longer than 44 or 64 days, and can only happen after the damage they caused has been repaired to a significant degree. Finding new sponsors, forging a better relationship with broadcaster SuperSport, and re-establishing the broken partnership with the players are at the top of the list, and progress is being made in those areas. But how do we expect South Africa to perform better on the field if those matters have yet to be properly resolved? Not that we expected them to perform as poorly as they have done as the current series has progressed. The way England's batters shoved the South Africans around in their most emphatic home conditions in the first innings has not been seen in living memory. On Sunday, the same captain and an attack weakened by the removal of their leader, Vernon Philander, with a torn hamstring after he had bowled just nine deliveries dismissed England for 157 fewer runs than in the first innings. Unlike in long stretches of play in that innings, Faf du Plessis set fields that had men in catching positions - instead of putting eight on the boundary - and the bowling was fuller and straighter than the short, wide drivel dished up then. Du Plessis ended the innings with a flying superhero catch at wide slip to remove Joe Root for 58 and earn Beuran Hendricks a five-for - 5/64 - on debut.

"We bowled better in the second innings," Boucher said after stumps on Sunday. "In stages, we bowled well in the first innings. We didn't bowl well in the first session [on Friday, when Zak Crawley and Dom Sibley became only the fourth opening pair and the first foreigners to share a century stand in the initial innings of a match at this ground]. I don't think there was enough aggression and we probably bowled a little bit full, which is understandable because everyone always talks about getting the ball a bit fuller at the Wanderers.

"The wicket has quickened up a bit so it was easier to hit those back of lengths [on Sunday] and see the ball carry through and the nicks carry as well. In the first innings it looked a lot slower than what it has played like in the last two days.

"We did come back and then towards the back end, they took the game away from us [when Mark Wood and Stuart Broad shared 82 for the 10th wicket, a record for Wanderers Tests]. If we had taken a wicket early in that last partnership, we would be sitting in a different predicament at the moment.

"But we are still not scoring the runs we need to, especially with regards to the top six, which is putting us under pressure. In order to win a Test match, you need to go out there and score runs and that's where we are suffering at the moment."

Translation: since they won the first Test at Centurion, even South Africa's better days have been tinged with negativity. They will start their second innings on Sunday staring at a mountain 466 runs high. No team has yet scored that many to win a Test, no South Africa batter has made a century in the series, and the target is 156 more than the biggest achieved to win a Wanderers Test. In December 2013 South Africa reached 450/7, infuriatingly, refusing to pursue 458 to beat India. But that team included Smith, Amla, Kallis and AB de Villiers.

"If we bat for two days, the run-rate is very gettable," Boucher said. "It's quite a few runs to chase down but we've got to hold on to some sort of positivity. I'd like to see us take it deep into the last day. If that's the case, the English bowlers would have spent a lot of time on their feet and that's maybe when we can throw that punch to try and win the game. There are ways and means to go about getting 450 and we need to try and do that." And 16 more, coach.

Could the key be Du Plessis, a usually confident, charismatic captain and player who has, from a distance, admittedly, dwindled into a withdrawn, greying figure who looks as if he is trying to take the captain grumpy title from Michael Atherton? Du Plessis cracked his widest smile in weeks when he ended England's second innings by taking a super hero's diving catch at wide slip to earn Beuran Hendricks a five-for - 5/64 - on debut.

"He is under pressure from a weight of runs [perspective] as well; captaincy, all that stuff, but the players back him in the dressing room," Boucher said. "It's nice to see him take that catch towards the end of the day. Hopefully, it will lift his spirits. He will go out there and fight. He understands that. He is the leader and he wants to do well and lead from the front. Hopefully, there is something big around the corner for Faf. The whole scene is set for him to come under pressure and score big runs and get us close to winning a Test match."

Famously, Du Plessis scored a century on debut in Adelaide in November 2012 to deny Australia victory, and he made another in that match against India at the Wanderers six years ago. Now, near the end of his career, he is running out of hurrahs. He's also gone 10 innings without reaching 50. The mountain will not come to Faf. Will he go to the mountain?

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