Faf du Plessis - A cricketer defined by character, not runs

Faf du Plessis announced his retirement from Test cricket
Faf du Plessis announced his retirement from Test cricket

26th November 2012, Adelaide Oval - Faf du Plessis and AB de Villiers find themselves stranded at 77/4, with South Africa still needing to bat out a day to secure a draw. To make matters worse, the pair had to contend with Ben Hilfenhaus, Nathan Lyon and Peter Siddle on an Adelaide strip that was showing considerable wear and tear.

Even though James Pattinson had limped off earlier in the match, the Australians were expected to dispose off the Proteas’ challenge and establish themselves in the ascendancy, as far as the series was concerned. Yet, nothing of the sort materialized as Faf du Plessis buckled down and batted 376 balls to keep the hosts at bay.

More importantly, he did so despite running out of partners at the other end. To put things into perspective, AB de Villiers departed soon after Lunch on Day 5, whereas Jacques Kallis perished moments before the Tea interval.

As the final session dawned, Faf du Plessis faced the prospect of navigating South Africa into safe haven, with lower order batsmen giving him company. However, the right-hander, who incidentally was making his debut in that encounter, looked unfazed.

Ultimately, he unfurled a combination of grit, determination, perseverance, and, of course, skill – elements that perhaps defined his Test career.

Post that innings, murmurs about Faf du Plessis being unsuited to the longest format were swiftly quashed. Not just because he had played a stupendous knock in his maiden Test fixture, but also because he had stood strong in the face of Australian adversity. That it arrived at Adelaide and against an outfit that weren’t too shy to let Faf du Plesss know what they thought only added to the greatness of the essay.

Fortunately for South Africa, over the next few years,Faf du Plessis ensured that innings was not an anomaly, for he conjured plenty of substantial performances. However, for the average cricket enthusiast, an average of 40.02 and a run-tally of 4163 runs from 69 Tests, might not inspire a lot of confidence.

Yet, as the dust settles on Faf du Plessis’ Test sojourn, one would be prudent to note that his career was defined by the character he showcased, rather than the sheer weight of runs.

Faf du Plessis nearly inspired the highest ever 4th innings run chase

Apart from that heroic knock against Australia, Faf du Plessis was also a crucial cog as South Africa nearly hunted down 458 against India at Johannesburg in 2013. Even on that occasion, he joined hands with AB de Villiers and compiled an innings that weighed a lot more than the 134 runs he scored.

Faf du Plessis scored a sumptuous hundred against India in 2013
Faf du Plessis scored a sumptuous hundred against India in 2013

Contextually, South Africa began the day longing for a draw. By the time Faf du Plessis set out his stall, though, those ideas had briskly turned into palpable optimism. Not only because he was batting exceptionally, but because South Africans knew that he was the only batsman capable of pulling a positive result out of the fire in that fashion.

A few years later, in 2018, against that very opposition at Cape Town, the Chennai Super Kings player pulled another special rabbit out of his hat. On that instance, South Africa, who had opted to bat first on a fiery track, were reeling at 12/3. Yet, Faf du Plessis stitched together an innings of 62 – one that was of paramount importance as the Proteas eventually won the series 2-1.

In fact, when South Africa were embroiled in strife, post the 2015 World Cup, both on the pitch and off it, they turned to Faf du Plessis, hoping that he would spark a remarkable turnaround. To that end, he began his stint as Test captain relatively well, winning 17 of the 27 Tests that he captained.

However, once that run ended, Faf du Plessis had to acclimatize himself to the trials and tribulations of being a South African cricketer. Unsurprisingly, administrative issues began dominating the back pages in the country and the cricketing outfit suffered.

The predicament meant that Faf du Plessis could only win one of his last nine Tests as skipper, which, simply put, is not befitting of a cricketer who led his side with distinction.

Hashim Amla struggled for runs towards the end of his career
Hashim Amla struggled for runs towards the end of his career

Through that sticky patch, Faf du Plessis didn’t have the luxury of calling upon a Hashim Amla, who was at the peak of his powers, nor did he have enough consistent opening batsmen.

Elsewhere, AB de Villiers had also started to pick and choose the international rubbers he would play. On the other hand, Quinton de Kock, despite setting the world ablaze with his precocious talent, was still finding his feet in the Test arena.

Most vitally, unlike previous South African captains, Faf du Plessis had an extremely inexperienced bowling line-up at his disposal. Morne Morkel had retired relatively early to pursue newer pastures, whereas Vernon Philander, under the sheer burden of injuries, had also fallen off a cliff.

Duanne Olivier and Kyle Abbott found it wiser to sign Kolpak deals, meaning that Faf du Plessis was only effectively left with Kagiso Rabada, who lest we forget, is still quite young.

Above all though, Faf du Plessis couldn’t bank on one Dale Steyn – a bowler who had been South Africa’s Guardian Angel for the better part of the previous decade. When Faf du Plessis assumed his role at the helm, he had to endure more than a furrowed brow or two, with regards to Steyn’s fitness. And, ultimately, it took its toll.

Faf du Plessis' last Test ton came at Centurion against Sri Lanka
Faf du Plessis' last Test ton came at Centurion against Sri Lanka

Yet, Faf du Plessis rarely complained, often resorting to clarion calls, just to get South Africa back to the echelon where they belonged. Unfortunately, as has become the norm recently, those fell on deaf ears, meaning that in February 2020, the batsman conceded that his tenure as Test captain had wound up.

And, in February 2021, he decided that the time was ripe to embark on a new adventure, entering a new chapter amidst ambitions of a brighter twilight before the inevitable sunset.

Having said that though, Faf du Plessis, like a majority of international cricketers, wasn’t devoid of shortcomings. To be fair to him, he perhaps even embraced them, in contrast to many others.

To put things into context, the former South African captain has been accused of ball tampering twice and has been charged on each occasion (50% of his match fee against Pakistan in 2013 and 100% against Australia in 2016).

Additionally, he has overseen perhaps the Proteas’ most barren run in Asian conditions, which came in the aftermath of them establishing themselves as an all-conquering outfit.

Personally too, he endured a wretched time, only accumulating 600 runs across 17 matches in Asia, at an astonishingly poor average of 21.42. Of those, he lost 11, with him being the captain in 5 of those encounters.

And, for a batsman who has played a fourth of his Test career in such conditions, the numbers seem pretty damning. However, they also indicate how good he was in other parts of the world, often casting himself as one of the greatest clutch players in the 21st century.

Thus, as Faf du Plessis hangs up his boots from Test cricket, one might even harbor lingering thoughts of whether he has fulfilled his potential in the longest version of the sport.

If raw numbers are considered, perhaps one might conclude that he hasn’t. But Faf du Plessis has always been a cricketer who has risen above the stats and has exemplified his importance through his impeccable temperament and unerring personality.

Consequently, he might not be looked at as someone as dexterous as AB de Villiers or as artistic as Hashim Amla. And, his captaincy record might also not draw comparisons with Graeme Smith. Yet, when South Africa kept rummaging for the faintest bit of light at the end of dreary tunnels, Faf du Plessis proved to be the beacon that illuminated those around him.

After all, that is what he did back in Adelaide, didn't he? Furthermore, guiding South Africa through one of its darkest periods in the 21st century takes some doing. And, maybe by virtue of that particular accomplishment, Faf du Plessis will always remain a cricketer who was defined by his character, rather than runs.

Not a bad way to sign off, is it?

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Edited by Habil Ahmed Sherule
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