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Du Plessis wants SA to set the pace

'We want to become a team that dominates and puts the opposition under pressure first.' Getty Images

The offices are closed, the beaches are full and the trees are draped with lights. It's so festive that Faf du Plessis even wore a Santa hat to his pre-match press conference, on Saturday.

South Africa will take Christmas Day off, as they've done for the last three years, with only optional training available for the die-hards. That's after only convening on Thursday which has means they would have had a total of three training sessions going into the Test. In between that, the players along with their families were hosted by coach Russell Domingo, who bought drinks and food for the guys which du Plessis said was "very strange thing."

It all sounds as normal as it should at this time of year, doesn't it? But underneath that are real jitters that the seasonal slow-down could sideswipe the seriousness of what lies ahead. "It's got a Christmassy, holiday feel to it and it's a red flag," du Plessis admitted. "It can creep into your game very quickly and you take things for granted or you go into a comfort zone and are just a little bit too lackadaisical, and you find yourself in trouble."

South Africa know all about that. They have lost five of their last nine Boxing Day Tests at home, dating back to 2004, and have won just two. Of the four they've played in Port Elizabeth, they've only triumphed once. Combine that with a reputation for slow starters and what is expected to be a slow St George's Park pitch and the first Test may present Sri Lanka their best opportunity to ambush the hosts, which is why du Plessis wants his men to be switched on as soon as they take the field.

"We are a team that's good when we're in trouble, but we're trying to change that and become a team that dominates and puts the opposition under pressure first," he said.

He warned of something similar ahead of the last home series against New Zealand in August, but when South Africa tried to throw the first punch, they found themselves on the ropes. They were 236 for 8 on the opening day after the batsmen's aggression only served to shoot themselves in the foot. Their aim has been better since but they're still not quite as consistent as they'd like to be.

They're hoping to change that this series and have set specific goals for the line-up to try and achieve. "We feel that as a collective batting unit, each of the top seven has had great scoring games in terms scoring good hundreds," du Plessis said. "You always want to make sure you get hundreds, because we feel that is what wins you Test matches. So we have done that and ticked that box.

"We just feel there's a little bit more consistency we can get from the batters. There was one hundred each from almost everyone in Australia and we would like to push those standards a bit higher and get one guy to possibly get two hundreds in a series and just dominate a little more as a collective batting unit."

All of Dean Elgar, Stephen Cook, JP Duminy, du Plessis and Quinton de Kock had a three-figure score in Australia and Temba Bavuma contributed to two half-centuries. Only Hashim Amla missed out and there's expectation on him to make up for it.

Perhaps Amla is the player du Plessis will challenge most, as part of the team's new philosophy of pushing themselves harder than they have in the past which has led. "All of us are a little bit more driven in making sure we do things that are required of the team," du Plessis said. "For me, it will be to step out of my comfort zone and make sure whenever I feel like challenging someone, I actually do it and not just think it in my head. That's the same thing for all of us. When you are in that 50-50 moment of, 'oops, I will just let it slip,' that you don't do that anymore. That mind shift that we've made collectively as a unit has put us all in a better place as a team."

Du Plessis' most important 50-50s will not come in his captaincy, but from his conduct. After failing to have the three demerit points overturned from his ball-tampering conviction, du Plessis is a Level Two offense away from a match ban. That means he can't use bad language or show dissent, and given the wide-ranging scope of those things for the next 24 months, he has to be more fastidious than festive on the field.

"I'm going to be on my best behaviour for the next while. The problem is that it's 24 months. That's a long time to be on good behaviour."