Du Plessis must lift spirits of SA pack
Dean Elgar was only half-joking when he pretended to take off an armband from his sleeve and hand it to Faf du Plessis. "He can have it back," Elgar said after he led South Africa in their first Lord's loss since readmission.
Test captaincy is not for everyone, not even someone of Elgar's eagerness. He has been likened to a Staffie pup by Morne Morkel - strong, steadfast and sturdy - all the qualities of a captain, but South Africa need a Great Dane.
Enter du Plessis (owner of two Dachshunds and a French Bulldog). He has quickly earned himself regal status and the South Africa squad have become his loyal subjects. In less than a year as Test captain, du Plessis has won them over, inspired them and overseen their success. Thank goodness he is back.
Du Plessis arrived back in the UK in time to watch a whirlwind fourth, and as it turned out, final day at Lord's in which South Africa's bowlers fought back but their batting "capitulated", as Elgar put it. If being on the sidelines wasn't enough to make du Plessis feel helpless, watching the line-up struggle in a situation he normally thrives in could only have added to his angst.
What South Africa needed was a calm head; someone to bat time, because with the time they had left, if they just kept batting, they would have come close. Du Plessis could have been that person. What South Africa also needed was a calm head throughout the match; someone soft enough to help them move on from the basic mistakes they made but hard enough to crack the whip; someone to show them all was not lost when they fell 97 runs behind after the first innings and to ensure they didn't squander their second-innings comeback with the ball. Du Plessis could have been that person too.
Now, he will have to be the person who puts the pieces back together to mastermind a comeback.
Luckily, he already has the framework in place. The repair job will concentrate on the basics: taking catches, bowlers keeping their back foot behind the line, shot selection. It all sounds quite rudimentary but that's where South Africa have to start. "It's a pretty straightforward thing to focus on this week - get your basics right and do things consistently better for longer," du Plessis said. "You will have moments in the game when you put pressure on opposition and then they put pressure on you and then you wait for your turn to put pressure back on them."
The patience game is something du Plessis will put emphasis on, particularly for the batsmen. South Africa's top four are prone to collapsing and a change in personnel (with du Plessis likely to replace JP Duminy and either Theunis de Bruyn to keep his place or a four-pace attack favoured) along with a shift in mindset is required. "It's an area we need to get a little bit harsher and more mentally harder on ourselves," Elgar said when asked to explain the handbrake on the top-order cannot seem to release.
Elgar admitted the revolving door that has become his opening partner "could maybe" be part of the problem but the obvious struggles of both Hashim Amla and Duminy has compounded matters. For the first time, du Plessis has suggested Duminy may have to make way because of a lack of runs but also alluded to the importance of his seniority in settling the squad.
"It's really important that after this Test, we don't fall into a mental hangover of the tour we have had so far," du Plessis said. "That will be one of my most important jobs and the senior players this week, how to make sure we stay well away from that and focus on the next Test match."
South Africa's mental challenges have only grown on this tour. On the field, they went from the hiccup that was the one-day series defeat to the humiliation of their Champions Trophy exit to humbling performances in the T20s.
Off the field, they have had to deal with continued speculation over the future of AB de Villiers, who now seems to have lost touch with cricketing reality completely. As the first Test neared its end, de Villiers tweeted: "Well played England. 2nd half of the day didn't work out but the boys still fought like champions! We'll be back next Test," prompting many responses asking which champions it was he saw. A few minutes later, de Villiers had changed the channel to watch a reality show called The Voice. Not even he was interested in seeing a distinctly un-champion-like collapse.
De Villiers' retirement from at least one format is expected as soon as CSA makes a decision on the coach, which has been another source of instability for the side. Since January, when CSA made it known they would advertise Russell Domingo's job and not renew his contract automatically after the England series, there has been uncertainty over management. Domingo initially contributed to that as he wavered about whether he wanted to continue but last week confirmed he had reapplied, much to du Plessis' approval.
"It was important that Russell needed to understand that if he wanted to take this team forward, he needed to really want to do it," du Plessis said. "That's something that he went back and thought about and then put his name back in the hat. It's important for him that he wants to do it and make sure mentally he is ready to challenge us for the next two years to be better every day. When you're not in that mood anymore, then no one needs to be in this environment. I am happy that Russell has made that decision. I work really well with him. If they decide to have Russell as our coach again, I will be really happy."
The decision will come mid-series. Interviews have already been conducted and the five-man panel appointed by CSA will make their recommendation to the board on July 21. The board will then have to mull over whether to accept that candidate or choose another but they will know which they are going before the third Test. Presumably South Africa could go into the second-half of the series knowing either that Domingo will continue or that they will have a new coach in the next month. Doubtless that will not be comfortable for them, especially given Domingo's personal circumstances.
His mother passed away on Sunday night, while Domingo was flying back home for the second time. Her death was sudden and unexpected - she had been in a car accident in June and Domingo had left the tour to visit her but rejoined the squad when she made a promising recovery. She had been discharged from hospital when Domingo returned to the UK before an emergency on Sunday. There is no timeline for Domingo's return and it is understandable that he has other things to think about besides the ongoing tour.
That only makes du Plessis' job harder. While his own arrival should have brought some normality to the squad, Domingo's departure could offset that. After all, the players are only people and they too would be affected by the tragedy that has hit one of their own.
Somehow du Plessis will have to try to take their minds off that or to divert their thoughts so that they can use it as motivation to try and give their coach something to smile about. Somehow he will have to use the absence of Kagiso Rabada - who is suspended from the second Test after an ICC sanction - to do the same thing. But if there is anyone who can do it, it may be du Plessis.
"There's a lot of things in captaincy you don't see as a player," Elgar said. "It's not a position you would take up thinking it's going to be quite easy. It's definitely a challenge. Some guys take it on board and do very well with it. Faf does very well with that."
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent