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Is Faf du Plessis missing a trick by batting too low at No. 5?

ESPNcricinfo logo ESPNcricinfo 5 days ago Firdose Moonda

© AP Photo/Mahesh Kumar A.

India have Cheteshwar Pujara and Virat Kohli at No.3 and 4 in their Test line-up while South Africa have Theunis de Bruyn and Temba Bavuma in those positions.

No disrespect to either of those batsmen and the time may come when their names draw similar reactions as the players listed in the India side. But, for now, it's hard not to think of them as having big boots to fill. Hashim Amla and AB de Villiers used to occupy those positions so comparisons are unfair, but questions about why South Africa did not opt to fill the spots with more experience are worth asking. Especially on a tour of India. Especially when they have other options.

The obvious one is the captain, Faf du Plessis, who currently lurks at No. 5 and is the subject of debate over whether he is shoring up an inexperienced XI or shirking responsibility. 

Let's start with du Plessis' own explanation: "The reason why I initially moved to No. 5 was probably because I was more equipped to play both roles, in the middle and in the beginning. When you are batting with the tail, I can take the game on a bit, similar to Quinton [de Kock]. That's the reason for it - to try and split up your experience and your younger players up."

Essentially, du Plessis has placed himself at No. 5 to prop South Africa up in case of an early collapse, something Dean Elgar mentioned when asked if he would prefer to see his captain bat higher up. "It's also nice to have a guy like Faf at No. 5 because if you are three down, for instance, we can get ourselves into a building position," Elgar said. "Naturally you don't want to be three down but if there is a scenario, it's nice to have a calm and experienced head in Faf."

South Africa's reasoning is well-founded. In the last two years, in 31 innings, South Africa have lost their top three before they've had 50 runs on the board 12 times. That period has been marked with trying to find an opening partner for Elgar, a long, lean run from Amla and spicy pitches at home, which put batsmen on the back foot, but all that should start to change.

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Aiden Markram is entering his third season and should be settling in, Amla is not around and the Ottis Gibson era of green mambas might have come to end, given that it's England, with their own pace arsenal, visiting this summer. But is that enough to make du Plessis bat lower down the order, especially on a tour of India, where the best players against spin should get the most time in the middle?

The numbers don't swing the argument either way. Du Plessis has made 681 runs in 17 innings at an average of 42.56 at No.6, where he started his Test career and has also performed consistently in the four other positions he has occupied. He also averages over 40 at No. 4, which may be where he is most needed. Currently, Bavuma is in at No. 4, and has struggled the most at this spot. In 11 innings, he averages 22.5 and has done significantly better lower down the order.

Given that Bavuma is under pressure to add to his lone century, scored more than three years ago, and now has the responsibility of being du Plessis' deputy, is it fair on Bavuma to also carry the extra load of batting in arguably the most important place? For now, South Africa seem to think it is.

"The reason why Temba is batting at 4 is because technically he is a very, very good player", du Plessis said. "He will be the first to say that his numbers don't back that up but technically he is one of our better players and we know that. We just want to give him that backing that he deserves, the confidence to bat in a big position at No.4 and we believe he will get the runs." 

The Visakhapatnam Test isn't enough to judge Bavuma and du Plessis acknowledged that he was "very unlucky," to be undone by deliveries that kept low in both innings. "For a guy that's two foot one, to get two that stayed on the roll," du Plessis said. "He is batting really well, he batted very well in the warm-up games and I have got a lot of confidence in him that he will come good. Even now, being the vice-captain of the team, leadership will help him get more runs for the team. He is going to be a big player for the Proteas going forward."

That Bavuma is being primed to play a central role in South Africa's future is obvious. He is a talented, mature-beyond-his-years player who experienced first-hand the transition from the so-called golden generation through the Kolpakalypse to the present day. As the only black African batsman in the Test squad, Bavuma is seen as an icon. Cricket South Africa wants to make a hero out of him, but to do that, they need to give him the best chance to succeed.

At the moment, it does not look like the No. 4 spot presents that chance. Bavuma is constantly in what Elgar called "a microscope position," but the opener hopes that is temporary. "It's just because of who we are playing against and where we playing. It's always going to be tough for a young guy to come in there and try and nail that position down but I think if we just allow him to experience that position he will grow as a player".

Perhaps more pressingly, they aren't that many other options. Both de Bruyn and reserve batsman Zubayr Hamza are also at their best at No. 3 or 4, as their domestic statistics show. De Bruyn has not been able to translate that at international level yet while Hamza has played just one Test. So, it is too early to make any calls, and the current make-up of the squad seems to suggest that it's one or the other who will bat first-drop. It's possible that decision is putting even more strain on the line-up.

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As has been shown in the past, with Elgar and even with du Plessis, new batsmen often find their feet lower down the order. If South Africa's tail was made up of three bunnies, this argument would be void. But on the evidence of the first Test, there is enough batting competence for the No. 6 and 7 not to be needed only to perform a shepherding role, as du Plessis suggested when explaining why he aims to be the bridge between the top and bottom halves of the line-up. Vernon Philander, Senuran Muthusamy, Keshav Maharaj and Kagiso Rabada can all hold their own, so moving de Bruyn or Hamza to No.6 is not unthinkable. It may also allow them the freedom to grow into international cricketers and it would mean du Plessis may have to bat even higher, something many in South African cricket are calling for.

Amla, now an analyst for the broadcaster SuperSport said after the first Test he would "flirt," with the line-up but did not make any direct suggestions. Makhaya Ntini, on the same panel, was unequivocal in wanting to see du Plessis bat higher, because he believed it would be the captain's way of fronting up. Put that way, it seems as though du Plessis should promote himself because he is not the type to shy away from responsibility.

Du Plessis took over the T20I captaincy on what seemed like a whim, to give the then white-ball captain de Villiers rest in late 2013. He then took over Test captaincy when de Villiers was injured in August 2016 and promptly led South Africa to series wins over New Zealand and Australia, in Australia. He also took over the ODI captaincy when de Villiers stood down after the 2017 Champions Trophy and braved through South Africa's horror World Cup run.

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A defiant du Plessis indicated he wants to keep leading because it brings out the best in him and there are many examples to prove it: his century in Adelaide in 2016 after Mintgate and then his century against Australia in the 2019 World Cup, as a parting shot after a dismal run. Now, South Africa need someone to step up, against spin, in the subcontinent. Over to you, captain.

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