South Africa have suffered heavy defeats in the Visakhapatnam and Pune Tests and have come to Ranchi with the three-match series already lost. As much as dead rubbers are no longer a thing in the World Test Championship, with 40 points up for grabs for the winner of the third Test, it can’t be easy for a team in South Africa’s position to try to play with the expected level of intensity, and to continue to enjoy their cricket.
This is where perspective comes in. Faf du Plessis, who has been on two losing tours of India, hopes his players can see their current situation with a bit of context, and continue to put in the work they always do with the knowledge that ups and downs are part of the sport.
Teams come to India and lose far more than they win, and du Plessis pointed to the 2015-16 South Africa side that came here with a squad full of experience, and a record of 15 successive unbeaten series away from home over nine years, and still lost 3-0.
“It is tough. It is tough when you’re losing,” he said. “For us, we’re very, very competitive people, so it does take a dent out of your confidence, but international sport is supposed to be hard, and the guys who’ve stayed at the top for a long time will tell you that it comes with ups and it comes with downs, personally and from a team point of view.
“So it’s important for us to understand that we have to fight our way out of these last two losses. We can’t expect things just to happen. They won’t happen, because India is a very powerful team at the moment. As I said, their record at home is amazing. So is ours – I mean our record at home is just as good. So for us, it’s just about trying to keep doing the things well, keep practising hard, keep doing the processes as well as you can, and then hopefully it’s just a matter of time and you start winning again.
“We came here last time with a very strong team as well, very experienced international team that did very well overseas, the best record abroad, and we still found it challenging. There’s an obvious reason that people who come to India find it tough to beat them at home. So it’s not all doom and gloom for me in that aspect. It’s about trying to improve as players. There’re a lot of young guys in the team, and they need to make sure that whatever they get out of this experience, when they come back in three or four years’ time, they’re better and stronger for it.”
On Thursday, two days out from the start of the Test match, South Africa’s batsmen roughed up the practice pitches with their spikes before facing the spinners. Du Plessis said it was about being ready for sharp turn as and when it did arrive, and predicted that the Ranchi pitch might offer more help to the spinners than the ones in Visakhapatnam and Pune did.
“Yeah, for me it’s about over-preparing,” du Plessis said. “I want to try and make it as tough as possible in the nets, so that when I come to the middle, and if it does spin, then at least I’ve tried and prepared for it as best as possible. For me, it’s just about trying to put myself in a position where I feel like I’m prepared.
“Whatever happens after that happens after that, but I think it’s really important that you prepare as best as you can, and make it as tough as possible. I think the wicket will spin. I looked at the pitch and it’s a different colour. It’s obviously that dark, dry hardness to the surface, so I think reverse swing and spin will play a factor in this Test match.”
As prepared as du Plessis might be, he knows South Africa need more runs from him. He’s made two half-centuries in this series and looked mostly in control in the middle, but the big scores haven’t come yet.
“I think as a player, all you want to do is grow,” he said. “My last series here, when I batted in Test cricket, I found it very challenging. I think I’ve shown a lot of improvement coming here the second time around, being quite comfortable out there in the middle even though we’ve been under pressure as a batting unit all the time. Looking good, feeling good, batting well, and then it’s just a case of me making sure that I can convert fifties into hundreds.
“That’s not necessarily just in India, that’s what any good players around the world would make sure they want to change that. There’s a lot of good players that get a lot of fifties and there’s a lot of chat about you – Joe Root getting fifties [and not converting them] and stuff like that. So for all of us, it’s just about converting. I’m not different from any one of those players.
“Probably will [send] somebody else to the toss tomorrow, I’ll give you that, because my record so far hasn’t been great, and then, yeah, if we put big runs on the board in the first innings, that’s where we need to start”
Faf du Plessis
“When I get to fifty, I want to get a hundred. The fact that I’ve done it [scored a fifty] twice already this series, there’s no reason for me not to go on and get a big one, so that’s the challenge that I have for myself because I understand that 60s are not going to win Test matches for us. I need to bat big, like the Indian team has done. They’ve scored big runs.”
One of the major challenges for South Africa on their recent tours of Asia has been winning tosses – they’ve lost their last nine tosses here, going back to July 2015. Du Plessis suggested he might send someone else out for the toss to try and change his team’s luck.
“We’ve felt that we’ve done it [compete] in stages, more probably in the first Test, so hoping that we can start with the toss tomorrow,” he said. “Probably will [send] somebody else to the toss tomorrow, I’ll give you that, because my record so far hasn’t been great, and then, yeah, if we put big runs on the board in the first innings, that’s where we need to start.
“We get runs in the first innings, and then anything from there is possible. So hopefully, that’ll be how it’ll unfold over the next couple of days, where we can put some runs on. The pitch looks a little bit drier, a little bit crustier, so first-innings runs are going to be vital, and then anything is possible in the second innings.”