South Africa are readying themselves for a new era in Test cricket. Not only is the three-match series against India their first long-format outing of the World Test Championship or their first under the new coaching structure, it is also the first since the retirements of Hashim Amla and Dale Steyn, the last links to the golden generation who were ranked No.1 in the world. But, for captain Faf du Plessis, that signals an opportunity to deliver a statement of intent. And a strong one at that.
“It’s a real good time for me to be involved with a young team,” he said at the pre-game press conference in Visakhapatnam. “There’s a lot of senior players that are out of our system, our leadership group has changed completely, you’ve lost all your experience and those players. But what that does, it’s a new time for growing new leaders in our team. The next best fast bowlers that’s going to come through, they’re going to be the next best Hashim Amlas, so it’s exciting for me to be working with the young guys in the team.”
“There’s not a lot of baggage that comes with the guys that are on the tour, and they’re also – as most young cricketers are – very motivated and driven to do well”
Faf du Plessis
With 58 Test caps to his name, du Plessis is the joint-most senior member of the squad, alongside Vernon Philander. South Africa will look to draw from the experience of Dean Elgar (56 caps) and Quinton de Kock (40 caps) as well, even though de Kock is on his first Test tour to India after being dropped for the 2015 series. Vice-captain Temba Bavuma is the only other batsman to have played Test cricket in India. While all of this leaves presents the picture of a team that may not have enough information about the conditions they will face in the coming weeks, it also means there are fewer memories of the 0-3 series loss from four years ago.
“What Test cricket, in general, does to you that if there is a flaw in your game, or if there is something that you’re not quite on top of against an opposition, generally Test cricket exposes that in your game,” du Plessis said. “And obviously, last time we came here as a batting unit, and personally myself, finding it very difficult in tough conditions, and it was a fact that I needed to get better from a defensive technical point of view, to adapt to play in tough conditions.
The South Africa captain ponders a five-bowler theory on the eve of the Test series opener
“It was really dry back then, the ball spun a lot. As a batting unit, we found it tough, even though we had lots of experience in our team, and now we’ve got a completely different unit, you know. It’s a very, very young-looking batting line-up, so there’s not a lot of baggage that comes with the guys that are on the tour, and they’re also – as most young cricketers are – very motivated and driven to do well in international cricket, and this tour will be no different for them.”
Those levels of determination run deep and South Africa have prepared extensively for this tour. Several members of the Test squad, such as Aiden Markram, Theunis de Bruyn, Bavuma and Zubayr Hamza, were involved a spin camp in India, followed by an A team tour. South Africa even added local expertise in the form of batting consultant Amol Muzumdar to the backroom staff, which has added a different perspective to their planning.
“It’s been really refreshing having some local knowledge in our dressing room,” du Plessis said. “It’s just a different mindset, it’s a different language, it’s different chats that you’re not used to, and that’s really refreshing no matter how many games you’ve played. I’ve enjoyed his time with us, it’s been very short, but already some really good conversations.”
But now the time for talking is almost up and South Africa have to show what kind of progress, if any, they have made since they last faced India at home. There is very little expectation of anything but another drubbing, which may only spur du Plessis to try to spring a few surprises.
“It’s a challenge, but I’ve always been the type of person and character that enjoys the challenge, I think it generally brings the best out of me as a personality and as a character, so it’s one thing you have to look forward to,” du Plessis said. “You can’t look at teams that you’re playing and see that it’s… oh dear, we’re playing against some really strong oppositions. You’ve got to face it head on.”