It may not immediately look like it but the situation in South African cricket is steadily improving, so much so that captain Faf du Plessis is upbeat ahead of the four-Test series against England that starts on Boxing Day. On the third day of the team’s training camp in Pretoria, du Plessis acknowledged that even though his squad has not had the ideal length of preparation, the addition of experienced former internationals has lent gravitas to a set-up that was knowledge-deficient.
“Where we are as cricketers in South Africa is the most optimistic we have been in a while,” du Plessis said. “There were a lot of challenges the last six months. We hadn’t played our best cricket as a team but there had been a lot of stuff happening off the field.
“For me, that’s the most promising thing where we are right now. We are not as prepared as we would have liked to be as a Test team but I think for now, what’s more important is the things that have changed in the last two weeks. Cricketers in SA and the public have got a lot of optimism about the team. It was really important that we focused on getting the right people in the right places and I feel that has happened. I feel we have got a very good coaching and management staff right now.”
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Du Plessis blamed the dearth of experience for some of South Africa’s failings in India, where they were whitewashed 3-0 in their first outing since the retirements of Dale Steyn and Hashim Amla. Half of the top six in the batting line-up (Aiden Markram, Theunis de Bruyn, and Quinton de Kock) had never played a series in India before, neither had two of the four frontline quicks (Anrich Nortje and Lungi Ngidi) or the premier spinner (Keshav Maharaj) and their coach, Enoch Nkwe, was on his first assignment with the team after only one season as a franchise coach.
While du Plessis was careful not to pin the poor performance on Nkwe alone, he also emphasised how important a more experienced coaching group is for South Africa now.
“In the Test team, when it comes to not having the experience that you need in the players – if you don’t have that – you need to substitute it with experienced people in management and I feel we have done that very well,” du Plessis said. “When we went to India, I felt it was very tough on Enoch to go on that tour and be judged in India. Even if you are the best coach, you will struggle to go to India and do well so that was a really tough gig on him.”
Nkwe is now the assistant to Mark Boucher, with a view to being groomed for the main job in the future, something du Plessis called “exciting”, especially given what Boucher has brought to the dressing room in a short space of time. After an international career that spanned 15 years and a successful stint coaching the Titans for the last three years, Boucher has a wealth of knowledge to share. Both he and batting consultant Jacques Kallis, who played internationally for 18 years and has coached at the IPL, have already started upskilling the players, just through talking.
“The last two days have been exceptional in terms of hearing the conversations that’s taking place between us, talking in a batting group with Boucher and Kallis. It’s unbelievable conversations that haven’t happened for a while and the reason why it hasn’t happened is because we did have experience in our team, especially in the India series. Post the India tour we needed experience.
“The last two days have been hugely positive for me to see that, even though we are not getting the time in the middle, we are getting very specific practice. Jacques Kallis is talking to batters about how they are batting, what they’re looking for, what is a bowler trying to do, how they are putting together their first 20 balls – those things are absolute gold for young players to grow and even for myself. It’s been unbelievable just talking to people like that. Their cricket brains are exceptional. You just feed off it the whole time.”
All that means South Africa have not had as much time in the middle as they would have liked, especially after spending the last six weeks involved in a T20 tournament. Most of the current squad have not played any red-ball cricket in more than a month, with some, like du Plessis and the bulk of the bowlers, having not played any since India. While that is a concern for du Plessis, he said it was just one of those things the squad will have to work around.
“In an ideal world, we would have definitely liked to play a four-day game,” he said. “There is no substitute for four-day cricket, especially before a Test series and especially after a T20 campaign. We would have liked our bowlers to be Test match ready and that means workloads.
“All best Test bowling units bowl at their best when they have bowled a lot of overs. Look at all the great bowlers. Dale [Steyn] and Morne [Morkel] were no different. All of them needed to bowl a lot of overs and then they were at their best. We are not in a position where we can have that. But yesterday was a massive workload day for the bowlers. That’s the most we have ever bowled at practice as a Test team. We can only do what we can and I thought we did it well yesterday.”
Instead, South Africa are going to rely on their new-found positivity to galvanise themselves ahead of Boxing Day, with du Plessis hopeful they have seen the worst of the administration and things will only get better. “I was hoping that we would get to this stage but I didn’t expect it. And then when things started unfolding, the way I saw it was that things needed to get real bad before it can better. It might sound bad, but it needed to get worse to get better so I am happy that process unfolded to get us where we are today.”