Faf du Plessis has to deliver as a batsman and tactician in South Africa’s must-win Test at Old Trafford.
England head into the decider in Manchester with a 2-1 lead. Win, lose, or draw, Joe Root’s side is likely to receive plaudits for ending South Africa’s winning streak in this part of the world. A win or even a draw would be enough for England to claim a first home series victory against South Africa since 1998.
All the pressure is on the Proteas to force a result at Old Trafford. A draw or a loss would mark a sad end to coach Russell Domingo’s tenure and would force all and sundry to revisit the uncomfortable questions of the past 12 months or so.
Who is the best man to partner Dean Elgar at the top of the order? Why can’t the middle order fire consistently? Should South Africa back six or seven specialist batsmen, or should they put their faith in all-rounders?
Don’t get me wrong, we should be asking these questions regardless of the result at Old Trafford. After a shocking 2015-16 season that witnessed series defeats to India and England – and ultimately the loss of the No 1 Test ranking – the Proteas looked to be on the road to redemption. Series wins against Australia and Sri Lanka appeared to signify the start of something.
Then the Proteas stagnated in New Zealand. Then they stuttered in England.
The upshot is that the Proteas find themselves in a difficult position heading into the fourth and decisive Test against England. Individuals like Elgar, Morné Morkel, Temba Bavuma, and Keshav Maharaj have battled hard on this tour, and it is thanks to them that South Africa have a chance to level the series.
The Proteas will need to do more than survive at Old Trafford, though. They will need to take the fight to England. They will need to take control, and Du Plessis will have to lead the way with his captaincy and batting.
What will Du Plessis do if the Proteas win the toss at Old Trafford? Will South Africa persist with a measured approach, or will they change tack now that a win is needed? The weather is also something to consider. Rain is expected over the course of the Test and time will be lost as a result.
Again, one has to remember that England are the side with the momentum. Root has scored more runs than any other player in this series (360). Moeen Ali has taken the most wickets to date (18). The hosts may have unearthed something special in seamer Toby Roland-Jones.
And that’s before we start talking about how James Anderson and Stuart Broad will fare in what could be overcast conditions at Old Trafford.
The South African batsmen got themselves into trouble at The Oval when they persisted with an overly defensive approach. They will have no choice but to change course at Old Trafford. They need to take the fight to the England seamers. They have to attack Ali.
England are in a strong position in the sense that they won’t need to force the issue. They won’t mind if the Proteas occupy the crease for extended periods of time.
The onus will be on Du Plessis and his charges to make something happen. The South Africans can’t simply play within themselves. The batsmen have to get on top of the England bowlers, and Du Plessis himself has to lead the way with a big score.
Du Plessis will need to be more assertive and even a little creative with his field placings. Vernon Philander’s recovery from illness should help on the bowling front.
Chris Morris will need to improve, though, if South Africa are to have any chance of winning. Du Plessis will want a fast and attacking showing from Morkel, Kagiso Rabada, and Morris. He can’t afford a repeat of Morris’s expensive display at The Oval (the all-rounder went for 5.35 runs per over in the first innings and 6.36 per over in the second). Another ill-disciplined performance by Morris may cost his captain, and the Proteas, dearly.
Photo: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images