Faf du Plessis was ebullient in his praise for the senior players who “put their hands up” during the first Test against India describing Dean Elgar’s 160 and Quinton de Kock’s 111 as innings which “gave the team great confidence and belief” and said that “scoring over 400 on the subcontinent is never an easy thing to do.” It was best, he said, “to put the last day behind us and move on to the next Test refreshed and hungry to put in another big performance.”
The captain also put his hand up to an extent with a fighting half-century which helped the team recover from 63-4 and set them on their way to 431. But he was batting at number six because of Dane Piedt’s appearance as a night watchman. The question was asked, again, about whether du Plessis might be in a better position to put his own hand up more regularly and decisively by making an earlier appearance.
Despite having an excellent record as both a batsman and captain against the Australians, du Plessis has been routinely sledged by the Aussies about his preference for “hiding down the order” and “leading from behind” by batting at number five. He has always laughed it off, and rightly so. He has never hidden from a challenge in his life, on or off the field.
But now the question is being asked again, also rightly so. If Theunis de Bruyn really does have the ingredients to make it in Test cricket, might he and the team be better served right now at number five? Equally pertinently, is Temba Bavuma a realistic long-term prospect at number four?
“It’s been something that’s been spoken about for a while. I started at number six, and then there was an opportunity to go to number three, then four and now five,” du Plessis said after South Africa’s chastening 203-run loss in Vishakhapatnam. “It’s about trying to find a balance for your batting line-up. The reason I initially moved to five was that I was probably better equipped to play the different roles, batting with the top order and batting with the tail, or taking the game on. Same with Quinton. So you try to split up your senior players and junior players,” du Plessis explained.
Hashim Amla’s retirement has left a gaping void of experience at number three and Bavuma’s promotion to number four has divided opinion but there is a rapidly growing consensus of opinion that the captain would serve his team well by moving closer to the frontline of the contest.
“We have Temba who has played 40-odd Tests and he’s batting at four because, technically, he’s a very, very good player. He’s the first to admit that his numbers don’t back that up but, technically, he’s one of our best players and we know that,” du Plessis said.
Bavuma has played 37 Test matches with one hundred and 13 half-centuries for an average of 32.8 but in at least six Test matches his runs have materially contributed to winning the match. He is an ambitious cricketer and is unafraid of speaking his mind. If he reasonably believed that he had ‘done his time’ at number six and was due a promotion – and said so as du Plessis’ new deputy, was that sufficient reason to make the change? He averages 25 at number four so far.
“We’re just trying to give him the backing and confidence to know that he deserves to bat in a big position at number four. We believe he’ll get the runs and I thought he was very unlucky in this match, for a guy who’s two-foot one to get two balls that roll is very unlucky. He batted very well in the warm-up match and generally he’s batting very well and, now he’s vice-captain I believe that a leadership role will help him score those runs. He’s going to be a big players for the Proteas moving forward.”
Du Plessis may well be right. But the captain, in positions from three to seven, averages 40.8, 42, 44.5, 42.5 and 43.3. His career average is 43.25. So clearly his performance is not affected by where he bats. But others might be. He is immensely respected by his players and by placing himself closer to the action, he may set an example that inspires them. It may be unkind to say so, but with Aiden Markram still to play a convincing Test innings on the subcontinent, and with de Bruyn and Bavuma in the top four, the prospect of 30-3 remains a reality.
Should du Plessis set himself the challenge of preventing that, and succeed in doing so, the chances of the other batsmen scoring runs in less tense circumstances will improve significantly. Up you go, captain.
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