“The groundsman has done a fantastic job,” said Du Plessis. “It’s been very, very hot but it looks like it’s going to be a good cricket wicket, nothing too extreme but it looks like it’s going to be exactly what we wanted.”
After several days of hot weather the match pitch had a mottled appearance. It looked less green than it was when the South Africans assembled on Tuesday but there was still a good covering of grass.
The ideal pitch, according to Du Plessis, is one that offers pace, bounce and some seam movement.
“You don’t want excessive movement that brings both bowling attacks into the game. We feel that our seam resources on a wicket that offers a bit of pace and bounce can exploit some areas in their batting line-up,” he said.
For the first time in more than a year, South Africa have all their key bowlers fit, while the returning AB de Villiers needs to be slotted into what has been a settled batting middle order.
“There are so many combinations,” said Du Plessis. “It is the hardest team selection I’ve been involved in. We have so many different options, we can almost pick different teams for different venues.”
Although coach Ottis Gibson indicated earlier in the week that it was unlikely Dale Steyn would be part of the fast bowling line-up after a long injury break, Du Plessis said the former world number one bowler had lost none of his skill.
“Dale for me is the best bowler in the world,” said Du Plessis. “He hasn’t played for a while. He hasn’t got the overs under his legs that he would have wanted but facing Dale in the nets it feels like he’s got the same pace, the same swing.”
Du Plessis admitted that South Africa had produced some disappointing results in the past two years, notably away to India and at home to England in 2015/16 and in England in 2017, but said conditions, particularly in India, and injuries has been a factor.
He said he looked forward to his team challenging for the number one Test ranking, currently held by India.
“The next two or three years are going to be very exciting for South African cricket. We can push very hard to not only get to number one but to stay there for quite a bit.”
The final Test of the 2017-18 Ashes got underway at the Sydney Cricket Ground after more than two hours of delay due to a wet outfield at the start of play.
Joe Root won the toss and elected to bat first and by the time stumps were called on day one, the tourists were stationed at 233-5.
After another eventful day at the Ashes, we look at the good and the bad from Sydney.
MALAN DIGS IN ONCE AGAIN FOR ENGLAND
Having registered a century and two fifties in his debut Ashes series prior to Thursday, Malan has been one of the few positives for England in an otherwise shambles of a tour. The 30-year-old southpaw has shown impressive concentration and fortitude in his gritty displays in the series.
At Sydney, the Middlesex-man was once again in his elements as he frustrated the Aussie bowlers with a dogged unbeaten 55 off 160 deliveries. He was given a reprieve when batting on 34 after Steve Smith dropped him at first slip off the bowling of Nathan Lyon but that was all the luck he needed to forge another solid innings.
Malan once again reinstated himself as the highest run-getter for England in the series, a statistic which tells you all you need to know about his impact.
HAZLEWOOD KEEPS UP HIS END OF THE BARGAIN
Before the start of the series, England’s batsmen would have earmarked Mitchell Starc as their greatest threat and rightly so. Australia’s pace attack is much more than Starc’s ferocity and lethalness though.
In Hazlewood, they have a pacer who will constantly nag away at the batsmen by hitting the right lengths and then let the late movement do the talking. He picked up two crucial wickets on Thursday to join Starc as the highest wicket-taker in the series with 20 scalps.
The right-armer had Alastair Cook pinned on the crease with an in-swinger to end the England opener’s resistance. He then returned in the final over of the day with the new ball to remove Jonny Bairstow with a peach of an out-swinger. That wicket on the final delivery has turned the tables in Australia’s favour after England had done well for the majority of the day.
ROOT’S CONVERSION WOES CONTINUE TO HAUNT HIM
The England skipper’s awful conversion rate compared to the likes of Smith and Virat Kohli has been the talk throughout the Australian summer. Three times in the series has the right-hander crossed the 50-run mark but he has failed to convert a single one into a three-figure innings.
At Sydney, Root was once again looking his fluent best as he raced to 50 from just 82 balls but once again, he fell before reaching the 100-run mark as Mitchell Marsh grabbed a great catch at square-leg towards the end of play.
His dismissal for 83 runs means that Root has only converted one of his last 10 fifty plus scores into a century, a stat which really highlights the difference between him and Smith.
To further compound the skipper’s woes, the decision to not send a night-watchman in instead of Jonny Bairstow, who was quickly dismissed, has come back to bite the tourists real hard. Indeed, England went from a position of strength to one where it is the hosts who hold the edge.
JAMES VINCE’S AND MARK STONEMAN’S FAILURE TO CONTRIBUTE BIG
While Root’s struggles to convert have been highlighted to a large degree due to his standing as the one of the best batsmen in the world currently, England’s Ashes debutants in James Vince and Mark Stoneman have had troubles of their own in scoring big.
Both batsmen have had relatively good starts throughout the series but have thrown it away before turning those knocks into something substantial.
After running away to 24 runs off just 23 deliveries, Stoneman played at a shorter-delivery from Pat Cummins he could very well have left alone and was caught-behind by Tim Paine. Vince fell to the same bowler after pushing his way to 25 but his dismissal was uglier than Stoneman’s.
He chased at a short and wide delivery outside off but could only manage a thick edge to Paine, throwing away another start. Both batsmen have averaged between 25-30 in this series, a stat which underlines their ineffectiveness when it comes to playing the long innings.
However, Australia produced a devastating spell of bowling as they took the new ball with Mitchell Starc taking the wicket of Root for 83.
Bairstow came out, instead of a nightwatchman, and only lasted seven deliveries after edging Josh Hazlewood to Tim Paine to turn the match back in the hosts’ favour.
Malan told BT Sport: “I was a bit surprised, but you know, I think it’s left up to the batsman that’s next in to make the decision.
“Good on Jonny for making the decision, unfortunately it didn’t work but that’s the game of cricket.
“It just shows what Test cricket is like, you make one mistake and suddenly you let the other team in. We would have liked to be three down tonight with all our batters left tomorrow.
“It didn’t go to plan, but if we were three down tonight then we would have loved to be 400-plus tomorrow. Still no reason why we can’t get there, especially if we get through this new ball tomorrow.
“If we can get as close to 400 as we can, with the two spinners and hopefully it breaks up and it turns.”
Early rain softened the Sydney outfield as England struggled to make runs, but Malan – who notched his third half-century of the series – believes the tourists can still post a competitive total.
“I found it quite tough to score,” he added. “There wasn’t a lot of pace in the wicket and the ball was pretty soft.
“On a different day, maybe take a few more risks but I felt I’d rather grind it out than just give it away.
“It is a fine line of ‘do you go attacking? Or do you just stick in?’ Thankfully, I got away with a few things today.”
Australia bowling coach David Saker believed his bowling attack deserved the wickets at the death and was particularly happy to dismiss England captain Root.
He said: “It equalled the game up. I think we deserved it, we bowled some really good stuff throughout the day but didn’t get a lot of luck.
“It was a pretty even day for both teams, tomorrow will be a tight day.
“He (Root) looked destined for a big score. It was a great wicket for us and that exposed the last few overs for Jonny Bairstow, so that was nice to get him as well.”