There are many things that Joe Root and the rest of his England teammates will consider over the next few days; how to apply themselves better, how they are going to take 20 wickets in a game and more pertinently, how they are going to overcome the South African side they are facing with two Tests remaining. Another thing that Root should look closely at is how his counterpart, Faf du Plessis has returned to his team and inspired them to a resounding win over England at Trent Bridge.
Having been thoroughly beaten at Lord’s in the first Test, the returning captain could have been forgiven for panicking a little after the loss. However, as soon as returned to the squad his positivity and encouragement has injected a new lease of life into the proteas.
Whilst Root still possesses the air of a school boy joining the adults for a friendly game, du Plessis’ appearance at the toss said everything about the man. He stood tall and looked confident. Having won the toss he made a brave decision to bat on an overcast day in Nottingham, the scene of an Australian capitulation in the Ashes only two years previously. At one nil down the South African top order began circumspectly and accumulated runs rather than by playing domineering shots. It was a tricky pitch to bat on but, by grinding out the runs and batting right through their order, they tired an attack that looked short on ideas on day one.
After posting a decent first innings total it was now up to South Africa to restrict England to fewer than their total and if possible eke out a decent first innings lead. Having contributed little with the bat it was now time for du Plessis to take command and rally his bowlers. Morne Morkel has bowled well ever since he landed in England and his opening spell continued in this vein as he was ferocious and tested England’s batsmen with every ball.
Despite missing Kasigo Rabada, his absence went almost unnoticed as Vernon Philander clicked into gear at the other end. As du Plessis began to tighten the field the pressure built on the already under pressure England top order. As has happened all too often in the recent past, England simply could not cope with the demands being built by the bowlers and the energy from the fielders who were swooping for everything.
It was then that the captain came to the fore with an inspired fielding change. The final ball of Chris Morris’s previous over had been smashed airily through cover by Moeen Ali, who tends to play that shot quite frequently, and for the first ball of his next over du Plessis positioned himself in a catching position at short cover. Morris bowled the same ball and Ali duly obliged by hitting the ball straight at Faf who clung on. It was similar to Root’s repositioning of Ben Stokes to get de Kock out at Lord’s, but that was on a slow pitch that had become a little two paced and whilst still showing a great ‘feel’ for the game this seemed far more ruthless.
du Plessis appears a jovial character whenever you see him playing T20 cricket around the world and always seems to be having a laugh and a joke with someone. What has been so impressive since he has taken over as captain is the way in which he has improved results dramatically and has got the players united in playing under his leadership. His method is like that of Graeme Smith’s in that the team cohesion is vital to any and all success.
The modern game, whilst aesthetically bigger and brighter than any previous era, does retain many of its traditional values for success. There are regularly more emphatic victories and losses than ever before in the game and as a result much of the skill of captaincy is not as easily visible as it once. With all of the technological advancements everyone has a plan for every opponent but thinking in the moment on Saturday afternoon is what separates the average leaders from the great ones.
Both leaders in this series are new to the responsibility and pressures that come with the captaincy but du Plessis is the first for a while that seems to really thrive in the role. His counterparts, Virat Kohli and Steve Smith have also enjoyed success early in their tenure but both have tended to do well at home. South Africa are currently four series wins from four series under du Plessis and with Rabada to return to this hungry looking side, South Africa are going to take some stopping. The tried and tested way opponents normally attempt to disrupt a side is to get at their captain – England have their work cut out.
By Andy Hunter