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Faf du Plessis: The Great South African Wall

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Faf_du_Plessis_South_Africa_cricketWhen Faf du Plessis strode to the middle of the Adelaide Oval on the fourth day of the second Test against Australia in November 2012, his team was in a world of trouble.

A double hundred from Michael Clarke as well as tons from David Warner and Michael Hussey in the first innings put the Aussies firmly in control with a score of 550. Then, after skittling their guests for 388 they raced to 267-8 declared, leaving South Africa with an insurmountable target of 450 to win.

What little hope the South Africans had was quickly dashed at the start of their chase as Greame Smith, centurion in the first innings, was removed by Ben Hilfenhaus for a four-ball duck. Three more wickets would tumble before du Plessis, on debut, would join his high school friend AB de Villiers at the crease. What followed set the tone for the current Proteas’ skipper’s career.

 

Du Plessis ground the Australian bowlers into dust with a stay that lasted 466 minutes, 376 balls and contributed 110 unbeaten runs. South Africa pulled off a draw for the ages to keep the series alive. 

 

What’s more, Peter Siddle, the workhorse of the Aussie attack, was broken after throwing himself against the impenetrable wall that was du Plessis and was ruled out of the third and final Test in Perth a week later. The Proteas won that match convincingly by 309 runs, 78 of them coming from du Plessis’ bat in the first innings, and so took the series 1-0. 

A year later, South Africa found themselves in another precarious situation against India at the Wanderers. Instead of watching bleary-eyed in the early hours of the morning on my TV, I was there, high up in the Unity Stand as du Plessis walked out in the final session of day 4 with his side 118-2 still needing 339 to win.

Another masterclass in patience and concentration that lasted 395 minutes and counted for 134 runs, as well as a fifth wicket partnership with de Villiers worth 205 runs, took South Africa to the brink of victory only for the match to end in a draw 8 runs short of the line.

After these two exemplifying efforts, any embattled resistance against the odds became known as “doing a Faf”.

South Africa sorely missed their captain in the first Test against England at Lord’s this weekend. Their target of 330 on a dusty turning track was always going to be a tough ask, but without du Plessis, who was with his wife and new-born daughter back home, it was nigh on impossible. 

It’s hard to believe that the capitulation that followed, resulting in an embarrassing effort of 119 all out and a 211 run defeat, would have gone down in the same manner had the Great South African Wall been present. 

 

Du Plessis was not always considered a Test Player. In fact, when he made his international debut in the 3rd ODI against India (where he made 60 from 78 balls), he was thought of more as an aggressive white ball batsman. 

 

But with the captaincy securely his, and in the absence of de Villiers, du Plessis is an essential component of South Africa’s middle order and they will need him to contribute heavily in the three remaining matches on this tour of England.

His numbers are not overly impressive; after 40 matches he averages 44.92 with 6 hundreds and 12 fifties. But with a batting unit that is as fragile as any that South Africa has sent to England since readmission, it is du Plessis’ grit that will inspire more than his statistics. 

Hashim Amla hasn’t quite rediscovered the form he had before he was handed the captaincy in 2014 and has averaged 42.33 (down from his career average of 49.03) since then. Dean Elgar has emerged as a reliable opener and there is power and reliability down the order in Quinton de Kock and Temba Bavuma. 

But the heart of South Africa’s line-up needs stability. South Africa were woeful at the Home of Cricket, a venue they had been undefeated at since 1960, and the introduction of one player does not address every aspect of their game that needs improving. 

A captain cannot make fielders catch, bowlers not bowl no-balls, or batsmen apply themselves with more focus, but he can galvanise a team to dig their heels in and fight back from adversity. No one in South African cricket is more qualified to do so than Faf du Plessis.

 

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Daniel is a freelance sports journalist from Johannesburg who would always rather be watching Test ...

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