England in South Africa 2015-16 January 19, 2016

Rabada keeps the faith amid SA gloom

Kagiso Rabada has been one of South Africa's shining lights in a disappointing series © AFP

Kagiso Rabada said it five times but it was difficult to believe the mood in the South African camp was "positive," as they prepared for the final Test against England at SuperSport Park.

Before the session had officially started, the players milled about in the middle, some tossing balls to each other, others shadow-boxing, but with little of the intensity that usually accompanies the start of a Test-match week. Whatever the outcome of this match, it is not going to change too much for a squad that has come out of their biggest season in recent memory, including two four-Test series in a row, with nothing to show for it.

"It hasn't been a great two months from us - coming from India and also here against the English," Rabada said. "But we are bonding together as a team. I think that's the best thing we can do right now. We are trying to get ourselves in a good space. We're very positive at the moment. That's the best thing to do."

The words escaped his lips but his eyes betrayed him. There was no spark. There was no smile. Rabada was resigned in the way Ashwell Prince, now a selector, feared young players would be when even their captain, AB de Villiers, has condemned the current situation as hopeless.

"I feel that it is very disappointing," Prince said in an interview with the Cape Times. "The messages coming out in the media about AB not enjoying the game, about whether he is going to play, and how long is he going to play. And obviously that comment that 'all hope is gone'. If I was a young player in the team, I would be concerned about what the captain is saying. Does that mean he has no faith in me as a young player?"

Although de Villiers recommitted himself to Test cricket in the immediate aftermath of the Wanderers defeat, there remain concerns about how much longer he will make himself available to South Africa. And he is not the only senior player in the spotlight.

Dale Steyn will sit out his sixth Test in eight when he misses the Centurion match, and the fact that he broke down in the other two matches, at Mohali and Durban, merely adds to the doubts over his long-term future.

Steyn himself responded to a speculative story about the end of his career by tweeting the publication where the piece appeared, Netwerk 24 saying he still had a long time left before his career was finished. Nevertheless, his absence, coupled with the injury that kept Vernon Philander out of the series, cost South Africa dearly. Rabada even identified it at as a possible difference between the two sides.

"Maybe we can say we've got a young bowling attack, they've got a very experienced bowling attack. That's the only difference," he said. "I don't think they are that much better than us. Maybe they are playing better cricket than we are."

The reality is that, even with their inexperience, South Africa's bowling is the only thing that has kept them competitive. Their batting, barring the first innings in Cape Town, has floundered. The line-up has struggled for consistency in an XI battling for balance. In the last two months, they have been shot out for their two lowest totals since readmission - 79 in Nagpur and 83 at the Wanderers - and the number of soft dismissals has pointed to mental fragility. But Rabada insisted they have some fight left.

"We are trying our best. It's not like the batters are trying to get out. You are playing for your country; you have to do your best. I know for a fact every guy is trying to do their best. Sometimes it doesn't go your way," he said. "The fighting spirit is natural in the team. No-one is trying to lose their wickets. Everyone is fighting out there."

Prince believes one person needs to fight harder than the rest and that's de Villiers. "People say we don't have Graeme Smith anymore, Alviro Petersen, Jacques Kallis, so AB is not batting behind all those types of guys anymore. That means there is even more responsibility on his shoulders as a batsman," Prince said. "We don't have the names that people are throwing about, so especially in terms of where the team is at the moment - our backs against the wall - his performances are going to become even more important than they were in the past. The country needs him now more than ever."

That may be Prince's way of asking de Villiers to stay a little longer, to lead a little more by example or just to try and lighten the mood. Whatever it was, it hasn't worked yet.

By the time Rabada's media session was over and he had tried his best to convince everyone present that "we are very positive," the squad had formed a huddle. On previous occasions when they stood in that ring, you could hear the war-cry, their clasping of hands and the shout of "Protea Fire." Maybe that came later. But as the clouds gathered overhead and the squad stood with their arms around each other, they were an image of unhappiness. Over the next week, only they can change that.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent

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