Faf du Plessis captain of South Africa speaks to media after the day 5 of the 1st Test match between India and South Africa at Dr. Y.S Rajasekhara Reddy ACA VDCA Cricket Stadium on October 06, 2019 in Visakhapatnam, India. Picture: ISURU SAMEERA PERIS / GALLO IMAGES
Faf du Plessis captain of South Africa speaks to media after the day 5 of the 1st Test match between India and South Africa at Dr. Y.S Rajasekhara Reddy ACA VDCA Cricket Stadium on October 06, 2019 in Visakhapatnam, India. Picture: ISURU SAMEERA PERIS / GALLO IMAGES

For a captain who had just seen his team beaten by 203 runs in the first of three Test matches against India, Faf du Plessis was unexpectedly upbeat afterwards, but it was not a public relations exercise — or an exercise of any sort. He is upbeat, and, yes, there were reasons to be.

The SA captain is a lot closer to the action than anyone else, on the field and around the squad, and if he believes there is cause for optimism he should be taken at his word. He is, after all, a terrible liar.

He also understands just how fine the line can be between  success and failure at Test level and he experienced the determination and resolve of his players when they experienced the latter.

Anybody can point towards the centuries scored by senior players Dean Elgar and Quinton de Kock, which helped the tourists fight back from 63/4 to a first innings total of 431, but it was the smaller details that mattered as much.

The toss is always important in India and never more than in Visakhapatnam, where the pitch was immaculate for the first two days. Batting first did not guarantee victory but batting last almost certainly precluded it — certainly for SA.

Selecting three spinners, including a debutant and a man playing just his eighth Test, was courageous. Those who criticised it for being reckless, and there were many, have either forgotten about (or were unaware of) the slew of fast bowlers who have failed repeatedly in Indian conditions.

Dale Steyn is the exception that proves the rule. Even when second or third spinners have been selected in Protea squads, they have rarely been trusted, either to make the final XI or bowl meaningful spells. This was a departure from that conservative mindset.

Unfortunately for Dane Piedt and Senuran Muthusamy, India’s openers were well on their way to an opening stand of 317 on a pitch offering the spinners nothing at that stage when they were asked to make an impact.

Off-spinner Piedt, comfortably the leading first-class wicket taker in the country in 2018, was the subject of an instant, premeditated attack by twin centurion and man of the match Rohit Sharma, who admitted afterwards: “I took some chances and everything came off this time. It doesn’t always work like that.”

A couple of top edges flew just wide of fielders, half chances that might have made a difference had they gone to hand, at least to Piedt and Muthusamy’s figures and confidence, even if they did not affect the result.

Du Plessis was also hamstrung by the fact that his best spinner, Keshav Maharaj, endured comfortably his worst Test match, conceding 318 runs in both innings, the third highest ever in a match.

“Keshav is a very, very good spinner who probably wasn’t at his best in the second innings, but I’ve got a lot of confidence in him — he’s as good as any of the Indian spinners,” Du Plessis said.

There is little chance he will be as inconsistent and ineffective in the next two matches; perhaps that was another reason for the captain’s bonhomie.

The batting of Muthusamy (82 runs from over 200 deliveries without being dismissed) and Piedt (top score of 56 at No 10 on the last day) may have been inconsequential to the result but it was more than sufficient evidence to Du Plessis of the fighting spirit he requires in the squad.

“Experience counts for a lot in Test cricket. We’ve lost a lot of that with AB [de Villiers], Hash [Hashim Amla], Dale [Steyn] and Morné [Morkel] all retiring. This is a new phase and we need to give it time,” Du Plessis said. “As leaders, we know and understand that we have to be patient with the new guys because they will come through.

“The only way to get there, unfortunately, is to start somewhere.”

In case anybody doubted it, the Indian team is the best ever produced by that country. They are comfortably ahead of the rest of the world in the Test rankings and will only extend that lead in the foreseeable future. It may be cold comfort to hear it, but having given them a run for their money and extended the game to the fifth afternoon was quite an achievement. Something to build on.

“There’s not much we can do in the nets before the next game; it’s about mental strength now and putting away the last day where we didn’t play well. We’ve still got a lot of confidence and belief in the change room because of what happened in the first innings,” Du Plessis said.

SA cricket fans have had much to cheer and many victories to savour but nothing in sport lasts forever and now is the time to accept, if not embrace, being second-best and work towards reclaiming the winning habit.