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Proteas find themselves in a 'strange space' ahead of the Port Elizabeth Test.

Captains chin-wag: Englands Joe Root and South African skipper Faf du Plessis share a moment. Picture: Catherine Kotze | BackpagePix

The Proteas have arrived in Port Elizabeth to begin their preparations for the third Test against England at St George’s Park, starting on Thursday.

They will be in a strange space though.

It is not the familiar happy feeling of having spent the festive period in Cape Town with friends and family before picking up a routine victory in the New Year’s Test to boost the morale.

Instead, they face questions aplenty after suffering their first-ever defeat in the marquee Test of the summer since returning from isolation.

So, instead of basking in confidence and form, there are issues all round that need to be rectified over the course of the week if they are to put their noses in front of what is proving to be a highly-competitive series.

The most contentious issue is, of course, the form – or lack thereof – of skipper Faf du Plessis.

The fact that Du Plessis’ leadership ability is being questioned in some parts is ludicrous.

Frankly, the Proteas should regard themselves very fortunate to still be led by one of South Africa’s finest captains ever, and that list includes Graeme Smith and Hansie Cronjé.

But if its statistics that allows Du Plessis to dine at the top of the captain’s table, he will know that his batting numbers over the past 12 months are not equally impressive.

In fact, they are hanging over the Proteas captain like a dark cloud. It is 13 innings without a century and seven since he last passed fifty.

For a captain that prides himself on leading by example and knowing that’s its hundreds that win Test matches, this record will not sit well with Du Plessis.

It’s no coincidence that he always includes himself when speaking about the fact that the Proteas batting unit needs to improve to put the team in a better position. That everything can’t always be left to the bowlers.

Du Plessis will have a stern chat to his bowling unit this week though. His ace left-arm spinner Keshav Maharaj has not been his reliable self of late, prompting a discussion around whether new spin consultant Paul Harris is actually assisting or disempowering Maharaj.

But the stronger words will certainly be kept for the seam trio of Kagiso Rabada, Vernon Philander and Anrich Nortjé.

Cape Cobras seamer Dane Paterson has been retained in the squad for PE, but is unlikely to play outside of injury to the incumbents.

Du Plessis needs his strike bowlers to get into the English batting line-up early.

England opener Dom Sibley played with great discipline in the second innings at Newlands, and kept Philander at bay, which allowed the likes of Ben Stokes to play with freedom later on.

There’s little doubt though that Du Plessis will zone in on Rabada particularly.

The Proteas talisman has been looking much better during this season with his pace and energy up from last year, but he now needs that big haul to get the home team buzzing again.

Just like in previous years when the Proteas gained their chutzpah from watching Dale Steyn celebrate a wicket with gusto, this team looks at Rabada to take them forward.

There are only a couple of days before the skippers Du Plessis and Joe Root walk out for the toss at St George’s Park, but as we have seen before a week is an eternity in Test cricket.