Getting his mind, not his finger, ready is South African captain Faf du Plessis' main focus ahead of the four-Test series against Australia. Du Plessis has not played any cricket for four weeks since breaking his right index finger in the first ODI against India on February 1 at Kingsmead but has declared himself "good to go" for tomorrow's first Test and explained that even though the fracture has only had the minimum recovery time, it's more about headspace for him anyway.
"I've played with finger injuries before. The biggest battle to get over is the mental side of things," du Plessis said. "I've had three good nets over the last three days to hit a lot of balls. The biggest thing for me is to be ready for the mental battle and I am ready for that."
Du Plessis cited the recent series against India as evidence of how time in the middle is not always essential to a strong showing. "Before the India series, I didn't have a net for two months and then I had two or three nets and then I played the first Test against India," he said. "If you look at preparing, I was probably underprepared, but mentally I was in a good space and I felt good going in."
Prior to the New Year's Test on January 5, du Plessis had been out of action since October 22 after suffering a back injury in an ODI against Bangladesh. He used the time off to have surgery on a problematic shoulder and did not recover in time for the Boxing Day Test against Zimbabwe, or play any competitive cricket before taking on India. Despite inadequate preparation, du Plessis was one of South Africa's most important contributors in the series, with a half-century on his comeback at Newlands and another in securing the series win at SuperSport Park, and he hopes he can do something similar now.
"I haven't had a lot of time hitting balls in the middle but mentally I feel like I am there. Form for me is more mental. Every guy can say he is in and out of form, but it's how strong you are mentally."
Du Plessis extended that to the rest of his line-up as well, who have all gone through a lean patch this year. None of South Africa's top six scored a hundred in the India Test series and Aiden Markram and Hashim Amla fared poorly in the ODIs that followed. AB de Villiers and Quinton de Kock picked up injuries which kept them out of international white-ball action. Since then, de Kock has made 43 and 0 in a provincial first-class match last week, and Dean Elgar has played three first-class franchise games, managing a top score of 27. The numbers aren't hugely encouraging, but du Plessis is not concerned that his batsmen are out of touch and hopes they will come good against Australia, in less hostile conditions.
"I'm looking forward to seeing how our batsmen do in this series. I think wickets will be a little bit better," du Plessis said. "The Indian series was very bowling-friendly conditions - probably the most we've played in in South Africa before. And the runs that were scored in that series was not a direct reflection of guys' form."
South Africa played India on made-to-order pitches with pace, bounce and movement and du Plessis says he has "learned my lesson," about the perils of issuing strict instructions to curators. He also knows asking for similar conditions against Australia would only work to the team's detriment because Steven Smith's men are used to playing in conditions similar to South Africa's.
Instead, du Plessis has distanced himself from pitch preparation and said both teams will "play on what we get". And that is likely to be slightly slower than usual. "Over the last few years, the Durban wicket has slowed down a little bit," du Plessis said. "That's just the nature of the square. I expect it will be quite slow and it might even take a bit of turn. If anything, there may be a bit of tennis-ball bounce."
Batsmen can, therefore, expect a more hospitable time even though this is being billed as a battle of the bowlers. So much so that South Africa are seriously considering changing their team composition from six batsmen, four seamers and a spinner to seven batsmen, three quicks and a spinner, which makes it likely that Theunis de Bruyn will play.
Temba Bavuma, the other reserve batsman in the squad, has not fully recovered from a broken finger, which made the selection decision easier but de Bruyn also offers medium-pace bowling, and can act as something of an allrounder.
"When you play seven batsmen, you've got three seamers and a spinner which leaves you a touch on the thin side with the bowling. The fact that Theunis has bowling as a back-up pushes him in the right direction," du Plessis said. "For us, you also look at the opposition you play. Against India, we felt it was important to try and make sure we could use our pace to put them under pressure. That's why someone like Keshav [Maharaj] didn't play as big a role as he thought he would. Because the conditions didn't suit that. This series if we feel that an extra batter will be something we will make allowance for, that's very much part of our thinking."
South Africa do have another allrounder in the squad in the 20-year-old Wiaan Mulder but he is considered more of a bowling allrounder, who is being looked at as a future prospect. "Right now, if you are leaning towards a batting allrounder, you are leaning to someone like Theunis. If you are looking at someone who can bowl more overs, Wiaan. He is someone who can bowl you 10 or 12 overs a day but from a batting point of view, he is not quite as good as Theunis yet. He is very young but in the future he is someone we would want to get into our Test team because he does make the balance much better. Eventually we would look to get him in at No.7."