As a Test career that ebbed and flowed between the raw charisma of a hard-nosed leader and the visual charm of a ballet dancer comes to a close, Rohit Sankar argues Faf du Plessis was too cool for Test cricket.
Faf du Plessis is cool.
So cool that on the eve of a World Cup campaign, a tournament that his team bungles up quadrennially, he was leading his side into, he sits in the press conference and quips that he is “hopefully still cool”. So cool that he actually kisses his fast bowlers when they take wickets. So cool that when asked about the absence of a player in the playing XI after a Mzansi Super League game, du Plessis commented that he was “lying in bed with my sister” instead of just saying that the player (Hardus Viljoen) had married his sister the day before. So cool that the umpires once called him up to tell that there was “too much pink” in his gear. So cool that his last hundred in Test cricket came between Christmas and New Year and ended on 199. So cool that he announced his Test retirement on the birthday of one of his best friends: AB de Villiers.
Whatever else he is not, cool he definitely is. As his Test innings winds to a close, here’s reliving some ‘cool’ incidents from a career that sparked joy and curiosity in equal measure.
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From being nearly timed out to playing a marathon knock on debut
Sure, the Adelaide Oval will remember the day a Test debutant gave blood, sweat and tears to save his team from the jaws of defeat; 376 balls, 466 minutes and 110 unbeaten runs ground to dust the Australian bowling attack as Faf du Plessis’ Test career was born. But, as walked down the stairs to take guard in the first innings, his shoelaces got tied between them, his pads stuck in the way. He nearly tripped as he walked into the field of play on the verge of being timed out. The abuses from the unforgiving Aussie crowd ringing in his ears, du Plessis went in, calmly put a full toss away for four and ended his maiden Test innings on 78.
“I had to kneel in front of the whole crowd while they were abusing me from both sides. My shoelaces were tied and my pad was in the way and I couldn’t get my foot back in. I was thinking I was going to get timed here,” he later made of the incident. If anyone got timed out in that Test, it was the entire Aussie team in the hands of Plessis, running out of time to bowl out the Proteas.
Duping a schoolmate-turned-opposition
Neil Wagner went to school with du Plessis. The Afrikaans Hoer Seunskool has produced some outstanding South African cricketers, but Wagner turned opponent and went on to play against his schoolmates. In a Test between New Zealand and South Africa at St George’s Park in 2013, du Plessis seemed to have edged one from Trent Boult to the wicket-keeper. As New Zealand were pondering a review, du Plessis muttered to Hashim Amla “should I rub my arm or something, maybe show that I was a little hurt”, knowing fully well Wagner was standing within earshot. The Kiwi fast bowler asked du Plessis if he had hit it, and got a negative response. Hotspot replays later showed du Plessis had indeed gloved the ball. On the field, like Wagner found out, du Plessis was competitive as hell, cool enough to play a prank on an old school mate, yet smart enough to not make it unsportsmanlike.
“Let’s have a crack”
In 2016, again at the Adelaide Oval in the day-night Test against Australia, skipper du Plessis was at the crease, unbeaten on 118, when South Africa were 259-9. David Warner, who had returned after being off the field for the treatment of a shoulder issue he had, had to spend six more minutes on the field before he could bat again. Overhearing the conversation the opener had with the on-field umpire, du Plessis thought South Africa could upset Australia’s plans under lights by forcing them to put in a different opener.
“I listened to the conversation he had with the umpires, one ear talking to the batter and one ear listening to him and then I heard he had six minutes left before he could bat again so I thought ‘let’s have a crack’,” he later said. The plan didn’t quite work out as planned as Usman Khawaja stepped in and ensured Australia didn’t lose a wicket, but it did frustrate the Aussies as Josh Hazlewood admitted. “He [Faf] is quite cagey like that, pulled the pin and declared and caught us out a little bit.”
Mint-gate to sandpaper-gate
When you are at fault, you hide. When you have a past not worth blowing the trumpet about, you just don’t. But not du Plessis. As sandpaper-gate unfolded, Steve Smith, embroiled in controversy as the central figure in the darkest days of Australian cricket, broke down before a press conference. As the opposition captain at the receiving end of the incident, it wouldn’t have been easy for du Plessis to take the high road. Yet he did.
“He [Steve Smith] is one of the good guys and he’s just been caught in a bad place,” du Plessis said then. Test cricket is a hard battle ground. You never give the opposition a way up when they are down and out. You never bring up your own fallacies. Yet, here was du Plessis, not just being empathetic to his opposite number, but even willingly bringing up his own brush with the wrong side of the law. Du Plessis admitted he was in a similar situation before, referring to the time he was banned for applying saliva from a mint to the ball, boldly stating that he and the team were “not sitting in a glass house where we think we are better than them in that aspect.”
But that wasn’t even the best moment for him in the series. Wait for it.
The greatest alpha move in the face of an altercation
This isn’t from the movies, but if it was, it’s the scene where the protagonist steps in from the shadows to crack down on the supervillain. As David Warner and Quinton de Kock went at each other in the stairwell in Durban, du Plessis emerged from the South African dressing room to diffuse the situation, sporting just a bath towel, the cuts in his abs glowing even in the blurred footage from the CCTV camera. The most alpha move ever in sport? Hard to argue with that one. But if there’s one close enough, it’s from du Plessis himself. A few weeks back, Cricket South Africa put out a video of du Plessis training shirtless and explaining the reason for doing so was that his shirt was “excess baggage”. Sure, sure.
— Jonathan Northall (@jnorthall) March 5, 2018
Why lose the toss when your vice-captain can lose it for you
The pitch is almost always in focus in Tests in Asia. If the ongoing India-England series hasn’t gone full circle yet in the pitch controversy, two years back when South Africa toured India, it did. After two emphatic losses in the first two Tests where the toss was won by the hosts, du Plessis decided enough was enough. He had lost nine tosses in a row in Asia, and as an advocate of banishing the toss itself, the then South Africa skipper took a sly dig at the arguable imbalance the toss throws up in these conditions. He sent Temba Bavuma as a proxy captain for the toss in the third Test in Ranchi. Of course, South Africa lost the toss and the Test again, but it’s hard to argue that it’s freakishly cooler than calling the pitch a “sandpit” or a “beach”.