TELFORD VICE, Port Elizabeth
FAF du Plessis wore a Santa hat throughout his press conference at St George’s Park, where his South African team will take on Sri Lanka in the first test on Monday.
At least, that looked like a Santa hat flopped on his head what with its bright redness, white band and pom-pom.
But, according to Du Plessis, “It’s a red flag.”
Not literally. Rather, in terms of what those lazy, crazy days of the festive season can do to the need to stay focused that is required of those who play cricket’s most challenging format.
“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,” Du Plessis said.
“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 first and puts the opposition under pressure first.”
South Africa have done so more often than not under Du Plessis, and have been rewarded with nine victories in their last 11 tests and one-day internationals.
But the credit doesn’t belong to Du Plessis alone. Russell Domingo, the coach who went from much-maligned while South Africa were losing five of the eight tests they played last season to much-ignored now that they are winning, deserves his share.
“Russell’s energy has been incredible the last while, and he’s really bought into what we’re trying to achieve as a captain and a coach,” Du Plessis said.
Key to that happening was maintaining the kind of robust humour that puts the spark into successful teams. No concerns there …
“(Domingo) had everyone over at his house (on Friday night),” Du Plessis said with a naughty glint in his eye.
“We saw a bit of a different side of Russell – he actually bought some drinks and some food for the guys, which is a very strange thing.”
But seriously …
“We’re a really happy team at the moment,” Du Plessis said. “That’s because of the results – we’ve played some really good cricket – but it’s also because of the stuff we’re doing behind the scenes, which is very good.”
Did that mean Domingo had changed since last season?
“It would be too aggressive to say he’s changed completely,” Du Plessis said. “All of us are more driven to make sure that we do the things the team require.
“For me that means stepping out of my comfort zone and making sure that whenever I feel like challenging someone I actually do it and not just think it in my head. That’s the same for all of us.
“It’s when you’re in that 50-50 moment of, ‘I’ll just let it slide’, and we actually don’t do that anymore.
“It’s a mind shift we’ve made collectively. It’s put us all in a better place for this team.”
On Monday that team should be familiar to those who watched South Africa win the test series in Australia last month.
Du Plessis confirmed an attack of “three seamers and a spinner”, and that the three quicks would be Kyle Abbott, Vernon Philander and Kagiso Rabada.
Left-armer Keshav Maharaj is the only specialist spinner in the squad of 13 and spare batsman Theunis de Bruyn looks likely to have to wait a while to earn his first cap.
The pitch hid from view under hessian on Saturday as fierce winds threatened to sap whatever moisture was left in the surface following two weeks of hot, dry weather.
Du Plessis had taken a peek: “There’s possibly more grass on the wicket than you would have normally.
“But that’s about making sure we take their most dangerous player out of the game.”
That would be left-arm slow bowler Rangana Herath, who took nine wickets at Kingsmead in December 2011 in what became the Lankans’ only win in the 10 tests they have played in South Africa.
Like Monday’s match, that game was a Boxing Day test – which cannot be called a tradition in South Africa considering it was introduced as recently as 1992.
South Africa have won eight and lost five of the 18 that have been staged.
Fourteen have been played at Kingsmead, which has given South Africa seven wins and four losses for Christmas.
They have won and lost one each of the four played at St George’s Park.
That’s a record Du Plessis will want to improve, and to do so he will have to keep his nose clean after losing his appeal against a ball-tampering conviction on Wednesday.
Which means he will be banned should he be docked one more demerit point in the next two years.
“I’m going to be on my best behaviour for the next while,” he said.
“The problem is that it’s 24 months – it’s a long time to be on good behaviour.”
Careful, skipper, you don’t know when the suits are going to decide that wearing silly hats to press conferences is a level two offence.