SA call time on Duminy but bigger questions loom
Imagine being JP Duminy now. Dropped from the Test XI for Trent Bridge on the back of an acknowledgment from the captain that his performances are "certainly not what we need from a No. 4 batsman", it is difficult to see anything but the end of his Test career. And the man himself seems ready for it.
Two days before the Test, when he found out he was not going to be playing, Duminy did not go and sulk in the change-room, or take his wife and daughter out for a consolatory ice-cream or ring up some mates to drown his sorrows in something stronger. He "served the team", as Faf du Plessis put it. Duminy gave the other batsmen throw-downs, he carried the drinks and generally helped out.
"If we had to have a picture of what it looks like to be a team player, that would be JP. He leads that every day. He is a great team man," du Plessis said, as he explained how he had dropped his longtime team-mate and friend. "It was difficult as I know what he brings to the team away from his runs. He would be the first guy to acknowledge that runs is what guarantees you play in the team and his performances haven't been consistent enough so therefore we're giving someone else an opportunity."
Since his recall against England in January 2016, Duminy has played 13 Tests and done marginally better than before. In August last year, he was moved up to No. 4, in AB de Villiers' absence and since then has averaged 34.00 with two hundreds, one a match-winning knock in Perth, the other against a Sri Lankan side that had already lost the series and whose heads were more than halfway home. More telling is that in his last four Tests, Duminy has managed only 121 runs at an average of 17.28 (top score: 39) and has more looked more out of sorts than ever.
Duminy has approached his recent innings with a bizarre combination of ultra-conservative at the start and then unnecessarily aggressive later on. He seemed to have forgotten how to construct an innings and looked as though he wanted nothing but to get away from being asked to. Still, South Africa stuck with him longer than they would have another player, because he offered them something the rest of us cannot see.
"Why you want him to do well, and he is possibly given a bit of a longer run, is because you know what he helps do for the team away from his runs," du Plessis said. "He adds a lot of value."
On this tour, that has been particularly important. After the continued uncertainty surrounding de Villiers' future during the limited-overs matches, South Africa started the Test series without their regular captain and go into the second Test without their coach, Russell Domingo, who has returned home following the death of his mother. They have lurched through leadership voids and though Duminy's form does not suggest he would be the best person to offer advice, his experience does.
South Africa have travelled light, in terms of players with a great number of years in the game, with only four of those involved in the 2012 series returning. Hashim Amla, Duminy, Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander are the only people with Test experience in the UK. Du Plessis was in the squad, but he did not play, and Domingo was the assistant coach at the time. In fact, Domingo has been with South Africa for almost six years - three as head coach - and though he is understated, his absence has demanded more of the senior core, of which Duminy is part.
Du Plessis has also had to shoulder more. "I took it upon myself to step up in terms of leadership because you do lose a valuable leader in your team, so I thought it was my responsibility to do that," du Plessis said. "And then your leaders in your team take more of a collective sharing of the load. With that, we've asked the senior players to step up a little bit more this week because every vital bit of leadership needs to come out at a time like this."
That kind of leadership had to take a tough call in dropping Duminy knowing that there may not be enough depth to make up for him in the immediate future. Du Plessis will step into Duminy's spot for this Test and if South Africa choose to go with only six batsmen, then Theunis de Bruyn will miss out. He is certain to get chance later in the series and throughout a busy home summer. Aiden Markram remains with the squad for this Test and is next in line but after those two, South Africa appear a little thin when it comes to young batsmen, especially young batsmen of colour.
The transformation targets cannot be ignored, especially as South Africa will go into the second Test well short of their minimum average requirement of six players of colour, including two black Africans. At Trent Bridge, they will likely have four with only one black African, since Kagiso Rabada is suspended, and though they can make this number up later on, it will be on the back of their minds.
"Targets are through a season. With the challenges we are facing now, it won't be possible to that in this game," du Plessis said. "It's still trying to make sure we can put our best team out there and we are so used to the fact that we can play like that now. We know the guys in our squad are there to perform and that doesn't change. KG was an unforeseen circumstance. You can't plan for that."
Rabada was suspended after an accumulation of demerit points and will be back for the third Test but it is difficult to see a recall for Duminy which could lead to a more long-standing problem.
The leading run-scorer in last season's first-class cricket, Colin Ackermann, is white and plays as a local in county cricket while the third highest-scoring batsman Vaughn van Jaarsveld (also white) was not picked for the A tour; Khaya Zondo (a black African), next on the list, had a poor A tour. Du Plessis admitted to not being able to see where South Africa can look after de Bruyn and Markram.
"I haven't played a lot with the A side guys to comment on them," he said. "Theunis de Bruyn and Aiden Markram certainly look like they have the goods, they've got big runs behind their names in domestic cricket and that's what Test cricket is all about - the ability to score big, to score 150-plus and get your average up into the high 40s, that shows consistency. If you can do that, you should be okay in Test cricket."
Van Jaarsveld averaged 53.26 last summer and top-scored with 203, while Zondo averaged 67.27 with a highest knock of 157. He had one score over 50 in the three first-class matches South Africa A played in the UK, and the selectors are justified in wanting more than that. Perhaps they will have to wait for next summer to find their answers. For now, they know Duminy is not it.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent