South Africa need du Plessis to step up
Nothing is working for South Africa. Not changing up the opening pair, not trying three different No. 4s, not altering the balance of the side from seven specialist batsmen to six and then going back to seven again. Not counterattacking, not trying to bat time, not even leaving. Nothing is working and, as this tour hits Groundhog Day, South Africa have to ask themselves why.
The answers may lie in their failure to address the issues that existed last summer, when they were winning. And that is understandable. A team on the up - and South Africa were on a major up after slipping to No. 7 in the Test rankings this time last year - can brush their inadequacies aside. They can excuse them as mere speed bumps on the road to success, so that is what South Africa did. They said home pitches were generally seamer-friendly, especially in season when Sri Lanka were the sole visitors last summer, and they blamed conditions for the lack of hundreds in the New Zealand series in March, where Dean Elgar was their only centurion.
Elgar is also the only one to have made a hundred in this series so far and South Africa can't claim clouds and movement are the only reasons for that. Especially not after this showing.
With the sun out at Old Trafford and after the early bite, this should have been a batsmen's day. It was in the morning session, when England's tail added 102 runs to their overnight total against a listless South Africa attack, whose only tactic seemed to be to wait for an error. And the defensive, dare we say negative, approach came from the top. Half of those runs came after Faf du Plessis moved the field out when the ninth wicket fell and Jonny Bairstow was then dropped on 53. The pressure was completely off the last pair and James Anderson could enjoy the best view of Bairstow taking England to a decent total, but not one that should have scared South Africa as much as it seemed to.
Their approach was to bed in. After the early losses of Elgar and Hashim Amla, just as he was getting going, Heino Kuhn and Temba Bavuma scored just 17 runs in the next 11 overs as they tried to show they could bat like Test players. But Kuhn got frustrated. Even though he was carrying a hamstring strain, he tried a tip-and-run and it almost cost him, then he was almost involved in a run-out after a mix-up with Bavuma, then he gloved a sweep and was almost caught behind and then he nicked off. Then the real rescue act was supposed to begin.
Du Plessis spoke pre-Test about being "extremely hungry to make a play" at the place he used to call home; he spoke at the end of the last Test about "really enjoying those situations where there is almost no hope and you can just do your thing". With him and Bavuma at the crease, South Africa were steady but when they were dismissed within three balls, South Africa had sunk to a position where a series-saving victory seemed impossible. And to where the proper scrutiny should begin.
The No. 4 position has escaped the microscope because the opening partnership has been so poor but it can't for much longer. In this series alone, South Africa have tried to fill it with experience in the form of JP Duminy, attack in the form of Quinton de Kock and an anchor in Temba Bavuma. They have not looked at making it the place for a leader.
Du Plessis is probably the best candidate to bat there but is hidden at No. 5 instead, perhaps because the demands of the captaincy necessitate that he has some breathing room lower down the order; perhaps because his preference is to bat lower so he can come in if there is a real crisis. He should instead be thinking back to when he stepped into the role and how he fared. Du Plessis only batted at No. 4 in seven innings but in the time performed one his greatest rescue acts. His 134 against India in Johannesburg allowed South Africa to draw. When Jacques Kallis retired in the next match, there was talk of du Plessis taking over permanently but he only batted there in three more Tests before being moved.
Du Plessis moved back to No. 5 for the tour of India and the home series against England and then he was dropped. When he returned, it was as captain and the decision was taken to move Duminy to No. 4. Duminy scored two hundreds in that position but a lean run in the last two series all but ended his Test career - he has not even been included in the A side that will play India A later this month - and means South Africa have to look elsewhere.
Given that de Kock has been the most consistent performer in the last year, he was promoted to No. 4 but three failures in four innings forced another rethink. Bavuma was then promoted and it sounds like he will stay there. "Technically, Temba is very sound. He has been getting starts and the captain and coach feel he is the guy to hold the mantle," Amla said, though he admitted South Africa are "still looking for the right combination".
Really, they have thrown their two most promising players to the wolves while leaving the captain to clean up whatever mess remains. It does not sound like the most effective way to order a batting a line-up, it sounds like a reaction to what could quickly become a crisis.
South Africa are struggling for depth and though they may blood Aiden Markram in the home summer, Theunis de Bruyn - who made 11 batting at No. 7 here - is the only viable middle-order option. They need more batsmen to come through and the upcoming A series may help in that regard. David Miller has been included, Stephen Cook has been given a lifeline and the likes of Khaya Zondo and Jason Smith are on the radar. But none of them is likely to be the next No. 4. For that, they need du Plessis to step up again and maybe start to get things working.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent