Cape Town – The problems only seem to pile up for an increasingly fruitcake-like Cricket South Africa, in particular … but by extension for the national men’s team cause, too, as England’s major tour here draws nearer.
One quietly mounting fresh area of concern, amidst a gamut of them, is around the Proteas’ stalwart captain and middle-order batsman Faf du Plessis, who has found personal form stubbornly elusive for several weeks of the 2019/20 campaign.
The 35-year-old will be a critical figure in the four-Test series against the English which begins at SuperSport Park (on Boxing Day) in some three and a half weeks.
He is a rare current bastion of stability in a key Cricket South Africa portfolio, as leader of the Proteas.
Du Plessis first sampled the leadership when named Twenty20 captain in 2013, took over the Test captaincy in late 2016 and assumed the reins for all three international formats in mid-2017.
There have been some tumultuous episodes (both shining, and closer to ignominious) in national team fortunes during his period at the tiller, which has hardly been enhanced by the crises and uncertainties immediately above his jurisdiction, at boardroom level.
But he is still widely considered a glue that binds, if you like, for the Proteas themselves … despite presumably having to grit his teeth a lot as toxic events affecting the governing body swirl around him.
Du Plessis is also massively central to the Test batting department, presently suffering one of its shakiest periods of the post-isolation era and increasingly marked by awkward, baby steps for some individuals after gradual high-profile retirements.
His 61 caps and 3 750 runs (at an average of 41.66) make him both the most seasoned and weightiest in runs terms of all batsmen likely to make up the SA department in the important series against the English.
The right-hander has come under mounting pressure as an “old hand” in the batting order, considering the staggered departure over the last two years or so of massive, long-serving elements AB de Villiers (8 765 runs at 50.66) and then Hashim Amla (9 282 at 46.64).
Du Plessis, interestingly, is only a year younger than Amla, who (perhaps fatiguing more than he realised in terms of the ever more cramped global fixture treadmill?) fell into gradual but quite pronounced statistical decline in the five-day arena over his last three years before he pulled the plug.
Although a considerably later arrival to all-formats duty for South Africa than Amla was, Du Plessis is saddled with the extra burden of regular leadership, in a harrowing domestic climate.
Is it possible that his battle to be truly assertive at the crease – at all levels of competition – in recent months is linked to an own, developing mental tiredness and some demoralisation at distractive events around him?
The seasoned figure finished well down the notably ordinary-looking Proteas batting stats in the October Test tour of India, where they were comprehensively cleaned up 3-0, with an average of 23.66 and top score of 64.
A little more worryingly, and even making allowance for the vast change in demands and style of play, Du Plessis has subsequently not fired to a meaningful extent yet for Paarl Rocks – though prospering more collectively – in the Mzansi Super League.
He is a fairly distant 15th, unexpectedly by his standards, for most runs in the MSL, now well past the halfway mark in round-robin play, with 128 (no half-century yet) from seven innings at 18.28, despite several starts.
On Sunday, he was just starting to muster another head of steam when he tamely struck a Kagiso Rabada delivery down the throat of mid-off for 18, albeit that he looked down at the sweet spot on his bat as if something had gone inexplicably “sour” with it – and in fairness, quirks like that do happen in cricket.
He isn’t looking noticeably at sea technically and may simply be having a bad patch, aggravated by some ill luck at times; in some respects effectively “saving” his runs for the more heavyweight challenge of England shortly.
Nor is it as though he is in more widespread decline as a Test-match factor: Du Plessis had fought an almost lone battle at the crease, for example, in last summer’s shock 0-2 home reverse in late season to Sri Lanka, notching 35 and 90 in Durban and 25 and 50 not out in Port Elizabeth for a defiant series average of 66.66.
To his eternal credit, too, he had finished the otherwise disastrous 2019 World Cup for the Proteas in the UK with a flourish, belting an unbeaten 96 and then 100 in consolation, tournament-ending victories over Sri Lanka and Australia respectively.
But that also simply underlines his ongoing value as a stroke-player across the formats for the national team … and adds to the importance of Du Plessis finding his touch, with time running out, before the England series.
The Rocks have only two “league” games left, though they have an excellent chance of reaching the knockout phase as current leaders, and then there is perhaps one 4-Day Franchise Series first-class match for the skipper to find his touch ahead of the skirmish with Stuart Broad, Jofra Archer and company …