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Battered and bruised, is this the end of the road for Faf du Plessis?

January 19, 2020 South Africa's Faf du Plessis in action
January 19, 2020 South Africa's Faf du Plessis in action
©REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

1, 4, 29, 20, 1, 19, 8, 36 - this is not a telephone directory. These are the scores of South African skipper Faf du Plessis in his last eight Test innings.

The last time du Plessis scored a Test century was in February 2019 against Sri Lanka in Durban. In fact, his 36 off 123 deliveries in the second innings of the third Test against England, is the most balls he has faced in his last 15 innings.

The unfortunate part for him is that he has seldom looked out of sorts as a batsman. In fact, on most occasions, he has appeared the most accomplished of the South African batters. He looks good on the crease, solid in defence, impressive in attack; but suddenly out of the blue, either a peach of a delivery or a reckless shot, or a soft dismissal accounts for his wicket and things are back to square one.

"I have heard rumours of my possible retirement. But I have been clear that the T20 World Cup is what I am looking at. There is not a lot of Test cricket until then. It is important that as the captain I keep moving forward and be the driving force.

"There is one big Test now and two Tests then in the West Indies. Me and the team are feeling the pressure of not performing to the level that we should, but we'll keep fighting," du Plessis said in the post-match presentation of the 3rd Test.

Resurgent optimism dying a premature death

A year that started with loads of optimism for South Africa seems to be slipping back into the cloud of pessimism that has engulfed South African cricket over the last year or so.

The Proteas started the 4-match Test series against England in the backdrop of an overhauled Cricket Board and an air of hope. All that seems to be going down the drain for now. The team has been met with some unfortune with the rub of the green not going their way. Three lost tosses in the series is just one case in point.

It is notable here that South Africa had lost the toss in all the Test matches on their last tour to India as well, which they returned with 0-3 drubbing.

Trying to keep the pieces together

At the helm is a physically tired man, exhausted by persistent attempts to keep the act together. Forever the crisis man, du Plessis has been shouldering admirable responsibility since a long time now. It began with his Test captaincy, following an injury to de Villiers in August 2016.

Strangely for the skipper, the team has been forever in transition since him taking over the role. Apart from Test victories against India and Australia, there has not been much to cheer for du Plessis. He has seen pillars of the Proteas Test team - AB de Villiers, Hashim Amla, Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel walking away from the game. Some of the other vital cogs or earmarked stars like Kyle Abbott, Riley Rousseau and now Vernon Philander have moved on to greener pastures with the Kolpak.

Amid all of it, du Plessis has been brave enough to act as the interlocutor between the board and the players, to accommodate the ever-changing coaching staff and blood in young talent. If that wasn't enough, there has always been the beast of the transformation target to maintain.

In their recent hammering against India as well, the team appeared to be blowing apart - no proper support staff, lack of talent, uncertainty looming over the entire cricketing setup, facing a superior attack, not winning tosses, batting collapses and much more.

If there is one thing you have to give it to du Plessis, it is his dedication to the cause. Many would have moved on, like so many of the other international cricketers to earn a few easy bucks in T20 leagues across the globe, but the skipper has successfully resisted that path.

"I don't think that's what's leadership is about. I felt that the team has needed a leader to stand up and guide the ship through a difficult time. If you leave the team when they need you most, that's not my style," du Plessis said in the press conference after the Port Elizabeth loss.

End of the road

After the ongoing series against England, South Africa don't have much Test cricket coming up in the ongoing Test Championship cycle. The two Test matches against West Indies in July then should be the end of the road for du Plessis in red-ball cricket.

Don't be surprised if he steps down from Test captaincy after the Wanderers Test.

'Most probably after Windies tour, Test cricket will be something that won't see me.'

©Cricket World 2020