Faf du Plessis has been the captain with the Midas touch since his return to the South African camp on the final morning of the chastening defeat at Lord’s last week, with their resurgent series-levelling performance in Nottingham covered in his gilded fingerprints.
Perhaps it should come as no surprise that the leader who oversaw a 2-1 away series in Australia last year, and shrugged off an almighty ball-tampering row with a combative century in Adelaide, should have an impact on this series but the difference has been palpable, not least given that their head coach, Russell Domingo, is back home following a bereavement.
After dropped catches and no-balls blighted South Africa’s cause in London Du Plessis spoke immediately on his arrival from paternity leave about addressing the “non-negotiables”, with the result being that his team were clinical in their storming of Trent Bridge, taking every chance that came their way in the field and not once overstepping the line.
Beyond such basics Du Plessis believed the main difference was restoring “character” to the team. But his impact in the 340-run win went beyond this, be it the bold decision to bat first under overcast skies, Quinton de Kock’s move up to No4, some prophetic field changes and the smart rotation of an attack missing the talents of Kagiso Rabada.
“All I try and do is make sure the things I know that make a change in the team, I drill them very hard,” Du Plessis said, following his eighth win in 12 matches since taking over from his best friend, AB de Villiers, as South Africa’s Test captain last year. “The style of play we normally have is one with a lot of character, intensity and good body language. We played some good cricket [at Lord’s] but at times that went missing a bit. For me it puts pressure on the opposition and, when you are under pressure, it makes sure how you respond to those moments.”
Good captains tend to have good bowlers, of course, and in Vernon Philander he possesses a new-ball master with laser precision and an ability to extract precocious seam movement; his wicket-to-wicket style, at a modest pace, has caused all sorts of problems for England’s left-hand dominated line-up.
Short of a gallop at Lord’s following an ankle injury, the 32-year-old picked up five wickets – he now has 169 from his 45 Tests at an astonishing average of 22 – but Du Plessis was most impressed by his batting, having promoted him to No7 in a bold selection and been rewarded with 96 vital runs across the two innings.
“He is becoming the new Jacques Kallis,” Du Plessis joked. “We left a batsman out to play two all-rounders and with that comes extra responsibility on his shoulders and he responded beautifully by getting crucial runs for us. The ball will always be the ball for him, he is a machine. If there’s something [in the pitch] he is probably the best in the world.”
Another all-rounder who benefited from Du Plessis’s nous was Chris Morris, whose first three overs of the Test were taken for 20 runs after becoming obsessed with trying to harness swing and seam movement. A quiet word from the captain changed his approach to a focus on pace. In the first innings this led to the tail being mopped up with three quick strikes but in the second it took out England’s two best batsmen. Joe Root was cleaned up by an 87mph yorker and Alastair Cook undone by a 90mph bouncer – a fair achievement against a fine player of the short ball.
Du Plessis said: “I thought [after his first three overs] it was important for him to clear his head completely. I could see he was spinning. So I said: ‘Just bowl as fast as you can and after that hopefully your action will come through.’ We know he is an X-factor bowler, so to see now that he has some consistency creeping in is huge for us.”
The profligate Duanne Olivier will likely make way when Rabada returns from his ban. But Du Plessis still moved to bolster the outgoing seamer’s confidence via a sympathetic late spell that returned the final two wickets of England’s sorry collapse.
With Keshav Maharaj out-bowling England’s two spinners – the beauty that castled Jonny Bairstow in the first innings was the pick of his six wickets – and Morné Morkel a constant threat through his natural bounce (just ask Gary Ballance, nursing a possible broken finger), the captain’s resources are certainly strong.
However, on a tour when the limited‑overs team, under the now departed De Villiers, crashed to one‑day and Twenty20 series defeats at the hands of England, as well as a group‑stage exit in the Champions Trophy, Du Plessis will clearly be a central figure to South Africa’s chances of not leaving the country empty-handed.