South Africa’s total scores have more been in the 100s and 200s and have touched the 300-mark and more only thrice so far in the four-Test series against England. There have been only three instances when the visitors scored in the 300s – in both the innings of the second Test, which they won and in their first innings in the first Test at the Lord’s, which they lost. This scenario has suggested the instability in South Africa’s batting line-up. From issues like they missed Captain Faf du Plessis’ services in the opening Test to have a variety of players batting at the crucial No. 4 position.
In the first Test, JP Duminy came in at No. 4 for South Africa in both the innings. He miserable innings both the time led to his dropping from the side. In the second match at London, Quinton de Kock was pushed from No. 8 to No. 4, in the place of Duminy. He remained in the same spot even in the third Test at Nottingham before du Plessis once again experimented with the No. 4 spot by pushing Temba Bavuma from his usual No. 6 to No. 4. Had these number of experiments of trying different players at the important No. 4 position worked, especially in the series where the team has been struggling, there was no problem. However, that has not been the case with South Africa. It is understandable that a captain has to experiment, in order to comprehend what is best for the team, but it is not fair to do so at the stake of the team’s results, that have been getting poorer with every match.
After the opening batsmen, the next two places in the side have to be given to someone dependable; they must be one of the best batsmen in the team. The veteran Hashim Amla comes in the No. 3 as he is capable of shouldering the responsibility if there is an early dismissal in the innings. What if two wickets fall in a short span of time? You do need an experienced man at No. 4 like Duminy was. Not that he was South Africa’s best-ever No. 4, the numbers do not support him at all. But he had the experience; he played across the globe and was aware of batting at different conditions. It’s just sad that it might be a great task for him to make a comeback.
If South Africa are running out of options for a suitable No. 4 batsman, the man who usually comes in at No. 5 should be pushed a place up the order and why not if it the captain himself. In the 43 Tests du Plessis had played so far, he has played at No. 5 on 16 occasions, at No. 6 in 10 innings and he has some experience of playing at No. 4 as well. He did that between 2013 and 2014, during the initial days of his career and he had performed pretty well. He scored 291 runs at an average of 41.57 and his highest score, batting at No. 4 was 134.
When du Plessis could have chosen to bat himself at No. 4, he created needless hullabaloo by sending de Kock and then Temba Bavuma up the order. De Kock, who had never batted at No. 4 earlier in the Tests, began well by scoring an 81-ball 68; but was cheaply dismissed by James Anderson for just a run. Du Plessis’ call of sending de Kock at No. 4 turned out to be disastrous in the third Test. The batsman, who generally entered the field after the top and middle order batsmen lay a foundation was asked to walk in right in the 11th over. He did not last for more than 21 balls, scoring a mere 17 runs. In the second innings, he had to come in as early as the 16th over. He managed only five runs.
Since the wicketkeeper-batsman, de Kock, scored only 91 runs at an average of 22.75, du Plessis swapped Bavuma and de Kock’s position – it was the former’s turn to get grilled at No. 4. Prior to South Africa’s first innings in Manchester, Bavuma had batted at No. 6 in 18 Tests out of the 23 Tests had played. Even batting at No. 6, he hadn’t settled himself well. He still averages around 30, despite batting 29 times at that position. To add to it, he has had problems in converting his starts into a big knock. In the last 11 innings he has played, he has scored three Test fifties and no hundred.
Bavuma came in to bat in the first innings of the final Test when South Africa struggled at 84 for 3. He has rescued South Africa from situations more miserable than those but he was at No. 6 and he had the luxury of thinking over thoroughly until two more wickets fell.
Experimenting is not a crime and a captain has the flexibility to do so. But making such huge experiments in a series that had almost gone out of South Africa’s hand, now it definitely has, that was not the smartest decisions from du Plessis. It was a situation that required the skipper to step up and take charge. Considering his numbers at No. 4 and 5, he surely could have made a difference with his experience. Had he handled the No. 4 crisis well, players such as Bavuma and de Kock would have done their natural role of rebuilding the innings down the order. Maybe, the series would have shaped slightly in a different way.