Faf du Plessis admitted that both teams had waited for the other to make a mistake during the Proteas’ hard-fought first Test against New Zealand last week, but said the caution had been the result of a slow pitch on which it was all but impossible to score quickly or even fluently.
Ultimately, the match in Dunedin was decided by the South Island weather, which washed out the entire fifth day just as the teams were finally set for a fourth-innings run chase. At the time, the tourists were 191 runs ahead with four wickets in hand and hoping to set an achievable target to keep the home side interested — and therefore vulnerable.
Du Plessis said before the second Test started at Wellington’s Basin Reserve that if the series remained difficult to crack open, he would be prepared to lose it to win it. In his words, he would “make a play” in search of victory even it meant giving the Black Caps a chance of winning it for themselves.
“Obviously, we would have liked to win the first Test because now that it’s effectively a two-Test series you have to be pretty street-smart. If you set the game up to try to win but then lose it, there’s no coming back from that,” Du Plessis said.
“But I will take a chance, yes. I’d weigh up how far I can push the boundaries. The first Test was a good example. It was very difficult to score runs quickly but the chance of bowling a team out was pretty good, so a declaration of something like 220 in 50 overs might have been a nice challenge.
“So we’ll play this Test like every other and try set it up for the win. And if the opportunity presents itself later in the Test match, then I’ll definitely do whatever I can to give us the chance of victory.”
The loss of middle-order stalwart Ross Taylor and the leader of the Black Caps attack, Trent Boult, has seriously hurt captain Kane Williamson’s chances of becoming the first New Zealander to win a Test series against South Africa in 16 attempts, but South Africa aren’t taking anything for granted.
“Boulty is a fantastic bowler and a huge loss for them but Matt Henry and Tim Southee, who didn’t play last week, are also quality replacements so they have enough resources there to step in and cover for Trent. But if we lost two players of that quality, we would feel very light and everybody else would need to pull extra weight to make up for them,” Du Plessis said.
“Before the series started, we said that getting Kane and Ross reasonably quickly would be the key to us winning — we didn’t get Kane in Dunedin. He scored a hundred and the rest of the batting unit stuck with him. So he is the key once again.”
Also key will be the conditions — and not just the pitch, which was more than a little underprepared after six days under covers because of relentless rain and drizzle before the sun finally appeared on Wednesday. Wellington endures more than 170 days of gale-force winds in an average year, and more pumping southerlies are forecast.
“It is a huge challenge for us, for all touring teams. We have PE [Port Elizabeth ground St George’s Park] and maybe Cape Town sometimes, but they don’t feel anything like this! Bowling into the wind here is a big ask for the seamers. Even as a batsman the wind can affect your balance, you can easily be pushed over by it. It’s the same for both sides, but they are more used to it,” Du Plessis said.
Fortunately, he believes he has the bowling attack to cope — even if his solitary spinner, Keshav Maharaj, can’t bowl into the wind all day.
“KG [Kagiso Rabada] can be used from either end; he’s not scared by the challenge. Vern [Philander] doesn’t always need the wind, so he’s happy to run into it and give us the control we need and even Morné [Morkel] — he’s done the donkey work for South Africa for years, so all three seamers are happy to take their turn. But the spinner is always first choice to do it,” Du Plessis said.
The poor batting form of Quinton de Kock has been a constant source of solace to New Zealand supporters and speculation in the media — such was the enormity of the perceived threat he posed. The fact that off-spinner Jeetan Patel has claimed his wicket almost immediately in the past four innings on tour means, surely, that there is a “problem” brewing. Doesn’t it?
“One of Quinton’s strengths as a cricketer is that he doesn’t over-analyse things too much. He’s as simple as they come when it’s a question of thinking about the game or not thinking about the game,” Du Plessis said without bothering to hide a smile. “He is an instinctive and talented player and he relies on that instinct. Yes, Jeetan has got the better of him so far but, with the skill Quinton has, I see coming him through this and having some success in this series.”
Head groundsman Hegan Faith was at a loss to know how his work would pan out, or who it might favour.
“The weather has been playing games with us and now we’re playing a guessing game. A lot of first-class games this season have gone down to the last session on the last day; sometimes the bowlers have done well on the first day and sometimes the batting side has come up with the chocolates.”
Either way, Du Plessis’s determination to “make a play” and the Black Caps’ injury woes make South Africa strong favourites to go one-nil up. If they can stay on their feet.