Mark Keohane, writing for IOL Sport
An SA Cricket Magazine headline this week read: ‘Faf du Plessis’ brilliant Test career: The stats’.
It was a very liberal and generous use of the word brilliant because Du Plessis’s 69 Test match career, collectively, was more decent than brilliant.
There were brilliant occasions, none more so than his epic second innings against Australia on his Test debut, but Du Plessis consistently never delivered in the five-day format.
There is so much to admire about Du Plessis as a cricketer. He is astute, a thinker, a natural leader of players and a world-class top order batsman.
Du Plessis, given his mental strength and technique, should have been remembered as a Test batsman with an average closer to 50 than the 40 he achieved.
He had all the attributes to be dominant as a Test batsman, but there wasn’t a delivery on the expectation after his exceptional Test debut.
Du Plessis’s ODI and T20 career can comfortably be described as brilliant. He averages 47.5 in ODIs, with a strike rate of 88.6. In 50 international T20s, he averages 35.5 with a strike rate of 134. Those are imposing numbers and speak directly to the quality of Du Plessis in the shortened versions of the game.
Du Plessis this week retired from Test cricket. He captained South Africa in 36 Tests and won 18, lost 15 and drew three. He led a team in transition and a captain’s record can only be as good as the quality of the team he is leading.
I was asked to look at the good and the no-so-good of Du Plessis in Test cricket and to write about what I admired about the man and what irked me about him.
To qualify this, the observation of ‘admiration and irking’ is specific to his Test career as a batsman.
The admiration is huge for how Du Plessis started his Test career and it is more disappointment than irking at how he ended it a few weeks ago in Pakistan.
The Du Plessis who defied Australia for 128 overs and 466 minutes in his second Test innings in Adelaide in 2012 was a mental mountain. He was immovable in staring down eight Australian bowlers on the 25th and 26th November. He faced 367 balls to ensure South Africa ended the fifth and final day on 248/8 in their second innings, having been 45/4 after 20 overs.
Du Plessis, in a 205-minute first innings, scored 78 from 159 balls, which meant that he spent 671 minutes at the crease.
What made Du Plessis’s innings so remarkable is that it was a departure from every natural attacking instinct that has defined his fabulous ODI and T20 career.
I watched every minute of his second innings performance and I had never seen a batsman so unfazed by the opposition or the occasion. Subsequently, there has been Ben Stokes’s match-winning innings against Australia that was a combination of Du Plessis in Adelaide and Du Plessis in the IPL.
Du Plessis was heroic in how he fought to save a Test, which takes a very different kind of strength when a batsman’s natural intent is to score runs to win a Test.
With a mind as strong as Du Plessis’s and a technique tailor made to absorb the tortures and unrelenting examination of Test cricket, I thought Du Plessis would for the next decade be a dominant presence in the South African middle order.
It never quite happened.
There were days, instead of seasons, when Du Plessis flourished, and 10 Test centuries, while 10 more than many, just seemed to be 10 too little for such a talent.
The all-round demands on Du Plessis, which included a greater focus on T20 cricket, the IPL and captaining South Africa in ODIs and Test cricket, were massive and no doubt dimmed the bright light that shone on him in Adelaide in 2012.
Which is why any critique of Du Plessis as a Test batsman, has to be counter-balanced with his achievements in ODIs and T20s.
Then there is also the natural ageing and desire, and no player fights with quite the same determination at 36 years-old as he would have when in his first Test as a 26 year-old.
Du Plessis would play some wonderful Test innings, where the situation allowed for stroke play and not the survival of Adelaide, but I know I was spoilt by that first-up effort of his in Adelaide.
I always found myself believing he could turn water into wine and wine back into water. I never doubted that ‘today was again going to be an Adelaide day’. And I invariably found myself disappointed that it wasn’t.
To have such an expectation was obviously unrealistic and unfair, but with Du Plessis I always felt that he should and would deliver. It didn’t happen but still none of the failures made me doubt that it could happen again.
‘In Faf we trust’ is what I tweeted when he strode to the crease in South Africa’s second innings in Rawalpindi a fortnight ago. The Proteas were chasing a victory that a day earlier had seemed impossible. The score was 127/2.
‘Just one more memory Faf’ was another of my tweets.
It didn’t happen.
Du Plessis lasted just 13 balls and was out for five. It would be his final Test innings.
The surrender was meek when the announcement of Faf du Plessis, Test batsman, had been so mighty.