Faf du Plessis has had a frustrating week or three. He doesn’t just want to win Test series, he wants to whitewash teams. That has not happened. He wants – or at least that’s what he says in his press conferences – the pitches to have pace and bounce, and not too much seam movement. What he gets is a slow subcontinental pitch, followed by one that is just too extreme with both bounce and seam movement. He might have wanted the Wanderers Test to be called off, but that would mean a sticky situation for his employers and the country’s premier venue.
Two days after a tough week of not great bowling and general exasperation at the groundsmen, du Plessis was at Kingsmead, in charge of tired bodies and minds, going into an ODI series against the No. 2 side in the world. He hoped pitches won’t be talked about now because ODIs are played on flat surfaces, but this one again gave India’s spinners an opportunity to control the game, an opportunity they grabbed in the manner of veterans rather than ones playing for the first time in South Africa.
Then, as he batted, du Plessis saw Quinton de Kock walk without looking back when given out lbw. Replays showed the legbreak was going on to turn past the left-hander’s leg stump. In such circumstances, with so much happening around him, with a tour that began with much promise now threatening to fall to pieces, du Plessis led from the front with the bat, scoring a century even as others kept falling around him.
Du Plessis’ side was still comfortably second-best on the evening, and that has left the captain unhappy with his batsmen. “We didn’t bat well today,” du Plessis said. “As a batting unit, for the second top score to be 30-something or 40 shows that there weren’t partnerships. The most basic thing about one-day cricket is two guys getting together and putting some sort of partnership together. I thought the Indian spinners bowled well, but still, we should have been better against them.
“Certainly, tonight, we needed 300. Two-sixty wasn’t enough on that deck. The last two games we played here, we got more runs and won. We chased 370 here against Australia. So, I think it’s unfair to say the bowlers tonight were poor. I thought purely we didn’t have runs. The way the wicket played, and the way that our bowlers had to try and get wickets made it difficult for them. If we had got 60-70 more, it would have been easier for them out there.”
It was a slow pitch with unalarming turn for spinners, something du Plessis feels the batsmen should be able to adjust to. “When it’s hot and dry leading up to a game, potentially it can be there,” du Plessis said of the assistance for the spinners. “I remember playing a game against Sri Lanka here, where it was similar. But then, there was someone in myself and David Miller, who got a massive partnership together. Even though the conditions are challenging, you’re international cricket players, so you should adapt to it a little bit better. We didn’t adapt to it at all today. We lost too many wickets in that middle period, and if you lose wickets, it’s difficult to create any sort of partnership and put pressure back on the opposition.”
This will put a lot of pressure on the middle order – missing AB de Villiers for the first three ODIs – of JP Duminy, Aiden Markram and David Miller, who don’t carry a great reputation as players of spin. This match could have already sent a big message for the series: the middle overs are not going to be easy for South Africa. Du Plessis, though, expected his batsmen to get better.
“Quite a few guys haven’t faced their spinners, so it will take one or two games for them to get used to it,” he said. “Some of the guys played against these guys in the IPL, but not all of them faced them recently. With mystery spin or wrist spin, it takes you one or two games just to get used to the guys’ actions and their wrists. Then, hopefully, you get better at playing them.
“We’ll have a good discussion after this game and some feedback on the things we picked up, especially from my side. If there was anything that I can share with the guys that I picked up. And hopefully in the second game, we’ll play them better.”
Unlike with his opposition counterpart, it is difficult to tell how du Plessis is feeling from his tone. Whether he is talking of his frustrations or he’s joking, his tone and manner of speaking seldom changes. He is similarly in control of his emotions on the field, but upon reaching his century, he allowed himself a moment of exultation. “Scoring runs in a losing cause is not ideal,” du Plessis said. “Obviously, the first game of the series, you want to put your footprint in the series. That’s why I probably had a little bit more celebration than is normal for me. Big games, you want to score big runs, so it’s very disappointing that it’s in a losing cause.”
Only a winning cause can make these disappointments go away. Even if that does happen, du Plessis’ tone will be the same.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo
ESPN Sports Media Ltd.