Faf du Plessis has declared himself as having a "60-40" chance of playing the Boxing Day Test against Zimbabwe after picking up a viral infection in the week leading up to the game. Du Plessis had been out of action since late October, when he sustained a back injury against Bangladesh, and took no part in the recently completed domestic T20 competition. Instead, he used the time to undergo surgery on a troublesome shoulder and though he was 80% ready to play last week, his chances have diminished because of illness.
"Last week I was 80-20 for playing, probably now 60-40," du Plessis said on Christmas Eve. "My progress was really good over the last two weeks but I picked up a virus last week which has slowed me down a little bit. Right now, where we stand, trying to get to practice and see how it feels. I practised on Saturday and there was still a bit of pain in the back and when the professionals say there is pain in the disc, there is still a bit of risk."
A final call will be taken on du Plessis' availability on the day of the Test, and if he is passed fit he is certain he will be ready despite two months on the sidelines. "I have been feeling really good in the nets," du Plessis said. "I've had some time when the guys were playing Ram Slam. I was working with Neil Mckenzie (former batting coach) in Cape Town and faced Dale [Steyn], also trying to see where he was at. It was a great opportunity for me to work with him. I felt very good in the nets. I'd rather feel good and play no cricket than play cricket and not feel good."
Steyn is the other player South Africa are not wanting to rush back into the starting XI, primarily because they are mindful of managing bowlers' workloads over the next three months. Steyn has not played international cricket in more than a year while recovering from shoulder surgery and has had numerous setbacks on his way to complete recovery. He bowled 12 over for the CSA Invitation XI in Zimbabwe's warm-up game last week and came through well but unless South Africa are sure he is ready for the rigours of Test cricket, they may save him for later in the season.
"With Dale, in terms of the amount of overs he has bowled leading up to the first Test, it's important to assess how ready he is to bowl at full intensity which is where we want him to be," du Plessis said. "You want a Dale at 100% ready to go when he plays. If we feel that he is there, we will make a decision. If we feel he isn't quite where he needs to be from a Test-match-intensity point of view, there is still enough time to get him ready before that first Test against India."
While the January Tests against India are on South Africa's mind and du Plessis admitted to "already thinking [about the] balance of the team, trying to think of combinations that would be best suited to beat India", the Zimbabwe match is not being downplayed, especially as it serves as something of a warm-up.
South Africa last played a Test in early October against Bangladesh and last played genuinely competitive Test cricket in July-August in England so finding rhythm is crucial ahead of bigger challenges. "We have an opportunity to play against Zimbabwe, whether it's pink or red [ball], just to get some Test cricket in again. It's going to be a nice challenge to get ourselves running again because we've got a jam-packed season coming up, India and Australia," du Plessis said. "This will be a nice Test for us to get back into the swing of things."
The novelty of the pink ball has somewhat waned for South Africa - they faced it in Adelaide last year and concluded that though the idea of a day-night Test sounds totally different to a regular match, most of the match is actually played in the day - but the shortened four-day format is new. For du Plessis, an innovative, experimental captain, it provides another occasion to try something funky. "There's even more room for the unknown and thinking out of the box and making sure you can outsmart and out-think the opposition, so definitely if there is an opportunity to do that, we'll do it."
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent