London — As much as SA’s Test series in England has been about teams who seem adept at winning and losing equally emphatically, the subplot has been about Faf du Plessis and Joe Root.
But while the rubber is level going into the third Test at The Oval on Thursday there is a clear leader in the captaincy contest. And he is not from Yorkshire.
Media conferences featuring Du Plessis are becoming masterclasses in leadership prompted by questions from an English press pack who have not made up their minds about Root’s captaincy ability.
Du Plessis’ interaction with reporters on Wednesday was a case in point. "When I took over it was at a time of real darkness as a Test team," he said of his elevation, originally as a stand-in for the injured AB de Villiers, for the home series against New Zealand in August — when SA fell to No7 in the Test rankings.
They beat the Kiwis and followed that with victories in Australia, against Sri Lanka at home, and in New Zealand to surge back to No2.
Du Plessis’ logical, understated captaincy approach has been an important factor in the success of a team who have lost only one of the dozen Tests under his leadership.
"I had a vision of where I wanted us to go and a blueprint for getting there," he said.
"But getting there doesn’t always happen — you have to be patient. Luckily things worked out a lot quicker than I thought they would. We won every series that we played in and it was a good year for the team and my captaincy."
Typically, Du Plessis declined all the credit for what had been achieved. "As a young captain it’s important to find your own style of captaincy.
"I’ve played under a lot of good leaders and I spoke a lot and listened a lot about leadership," he said.
"And then you take little bits of everyone and form your own identity as a captain. Then you trust it and stay patient.
"If you know you have the right people on board and the right processes hopefully the results will come."
Root did not get off so easily, what with having to respond to some of his predecessors — mentor Michael Vaughan included — slinging harsh and even unfair criticism his team’s way. That will not help England as they try to atone for the 340-thrashing they were dealt in the second Test at Trent Bridge.
Unsurprisingly, Du Plessis was happy to leave part of his job to former England captains.
"He’s their No1 batsman — if you can put pressure on him by getting him out the pressure will fall onto the team," he said of the focus on Root.
"All teams don’t want to feel pressure and you do feel pressure if you don’t play your best. We will try and make use of pressure," Du Plessis.
Not that the South Africans have been spared negativity from outside their dressing room, which came in the form of apartheid-era batsman Graeme Pollock slamming efforts to transform the game in the country, which he said would produce "middle of the road" teams in future.
Du Plessis dispatched that view as surely as Pollock once drilled bowlers through the covers. "We as a team understand what we need to do and how we need to take the country forward, we’ve made that decision a long time ago," he said.
"We get on with our business as usual and there’s none of that in our team. We play the best team and try and win every game," he said."
SA’s plan for doing so at The Oval will include Kagiso Rabada, who was banned from the Trent Bridge Test after accumulating a fourth demerit point. He will replace Duanne Olivier in the only change to SA’s team.
In England’s team, Tom Westley comes in at No3 for Gary Ballance, who has broken a finger while fast bowler Toby Roland-Jones earns his first cap in place of Mark Wood, who has a heel injury.
A third change — to bring in Dawid Malan as an extra batsman or keep left-arm spinner Liam Dawson — will be made before the toss.
Perhaps Root should ask Du Plessis what he would do.