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Faf du Plessis: South Africa’s fire-fighter who revels under pressure

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Faf du Plessis has risen meteorically for South Africa since his debut in 2011 © Getty Images

Born on July 13, 1984, Francois “Faf” du Plessis is one of South Africa’s finest fielders and one of their most resolute batsmen. Shiamak Unwalla looks at the man who has shown the ability to save Test matches almost single-handedly with his bat in hand.

When Faf du Plessis bats, he does not inspire the type of awe that AB de Villiers does. He hardly invokes the same sense of serenity that is now a trademark of Hashim Amla’s batsmanship. Du Plessis is neither breathtaking nor wizard-like. Instead, he is tough.

The phrase “good temperament” is perhaps a tad over-used when describing certain players. When it comes to du Plessis though, it is perfect. In fact, du Plessis does not possess merely a “good” temperament; he enjoys a great one. Mental toughness is that one key element that sets him apart from the rest, and makes up a large portion of du Plessis’ batsmanship.

Saviour on debut: a foreboding of things to come

South Africa toured Australia in November, 2012 for a three-test series. The first game, played at Brisbane, ended in a tame draw. However, JP Duminy was injured during the course of the match, and was unable to play the next game in Adelaide . He was replaced in the playing XI by du Plessis.

Australia batted first in the second Test, and piled on a mammoth 550 thanks to tons from David Warner and Mike Hussey, and a stupendous 230 from Michael Clarke. In reply, South Africa were reduced to 250 for seven before debutant du Plessis, in company of an injured Jacques Kallis, kept the Australian bowlers at bay to avoid the follow-on. After facing 159 deliveries for his 78, du Plessis was the last man out, with South Africa getting bowled out for 388.

A much-improved bowling performance in the second innings saw the Aussies trudge to 267 for eight, leaving the Proteas a highly unlikely target of 430 to win. At 45 for four, things looked bleak indeed for the visitors. AB de Villiers and du Plessis stitched together a valuable 89-run alliance, but de Villiers was dismissed soon after. The injured Kallis put in another brave display, as South Africa hung by a whisper and a prayer. Dale Steyn, Rory Kleinveldt and Morne Morkel batted out some crucial overs, as South Africa held on to a draw.

Through all the wreckage around him, du Plessis stood tall; unflinching in the face of Peter Siddle’s scorchers, Ben Hilfenhaus’ probes, and Nathan Lyon’s tweakers. The debutant had followed up his first innings heroics with an even more determined innings: an unconquered 110 of 376 deliveries to save the Test.

If that was not good enough, he followed that up with an unbeaten 78 in the first innings of the next match at Perth. At this point, du Plessis averaged 266 three innings into his career. South Africa trounced the hosts by 309 runs after a spirited bowling effort and an improved batting performance in the second essay, but had it not been for du Plessis’ knock, the match could well have ended differently.

Lightning strikes twice

India toured South Africa in December, 2013, on the back of eight successive overseas defeats. However, it was a younger, hungrier side that travelled to the African nation, with the rock-steady Cheteshwar Pujara and the talismanic Virat Kohli in the side.

In the first Test at Johannesburg, a century from Kohli boosted India to 280. In reply, Zaheer Khan and Ishant Sharma grabbed four wickets apiece to give India a slender but crucial lead. A sensational 153 from Pujara and a tremendous 96 from Kohli in India’s second innings meant that the hosts had to chase a daunting 458.

After a century opening stand, South Africa seemed to have lost the plot, going from 108 for one to 197 for four. And who else but du Plessis and de Villiers to rescue a floundering South African batting performance?

The duo put their heads down and played exemplary cricket. They were helped by a markedly slower pitch and a less-than-threatening Indian attack, but the sheer volume of pressure the pair absorbed was exorbitant. The duo took their team to 402 before de Villiers perished. He was soon followed by Duminy, but du Plessis was as stubborn as ever.

He was finally dismissed by a piece of brilliance in the field from Ajinkya Rahane: a direct hit that beat du Plessis’ dive. Vernon Philander and Steyn chose to go the safe way after that, as did MS Dhoni and his bowlers. The match ended in a draw, with South Africa needing eight runs to win with three wickets remaining, but till the final over it could have been anybody’s game. Once again, du Plessis had saved the day with his good mate de Villiers for company.

Memories of Jonty Rhodes on the field

What du Plessis lacks in elegance while batting, he makes up with tenfold while prowling the close-in field. Lithe as a panther, swift as a hare, and with the accuracy of an eagle, du Plessis is another one of South Africa’s great fielders of the 21st century.

With the likes of de Villiers, du Plessis, and Duminy, the South African ring is nigh impossible to breach. The likes of Jonty Rhodes and Herschelle Gibbs would be proud that their tradition of outstanding fielding remains intact.

South Africa under du Plessis: Chokers no more?

The dreaded c-word has been the bane of South African cricket since their reintroduction to the international arena. They have consistently floundered at key moments in big contests on innumerable occasions.

However, all that changed in the ICC World T20 2014 in Bangladesh. South Africa were led by du Plessis, and reached the semi-finals with relative ease — barring a near heart-stopper against the Netherlands — only to face juggernauts India. With India being in the form they were in, and South Africa’s abysmal record in all World Cup semi finals till that point, the predictions were of a steamrolling.

However, batting first South Africa scored a highly competitive 172 for four, with du Plessis himself scoring a crucial 58 off just 41 balls. It required a Kohli master-class and a typically scorching cameo from Suresh Raina to guide India to victory, in the final over of the match.

South Africa may have lost the match, but they did not choke. They slugged it out and came very close to qualifying for their first ever World Cup final. The man responsible for this much-improved performance was quite possibly du Plessis. It was his knock, coupled with his astute captaincy that led South Africa to the brink of victory.

The future

One-Day Internationals (ODIs) are, curiously, the one format du Plessis has not yet managed to establish himself in. However, Faf du Plessis is not someone you want to keep on the sidelines for very long. His electric fielding and calm head will almost certainly mean that he will break into the side sooner or later.

Already in Tests he has saved two games for his side almost by himself, while the shortest format is his pet: a Twenty20 International (T20I) average of 34.56 and a strike rate of nearly 126 is proof of that. If du Plessis can continue on the track he is currently on, there is nothing to stop him from being one of the mainstays for the Proteas in all three formats.

(Shiamak Unwalla is a reporter with Cricket Country. He is a self-confessed Sci-Fi geek and Cricket fanatic who likes to pass his free time by reading books, watching TV shows, and eating food. Sometimes all at the same time. You can follow him on twitter at @ShiamakUnwalla)

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