Faf du Plessis - No longer in the shadows

du Plessis has had a dream run as South Africa captain

There is a certain new found swag about the South African batsman and Test skipper, Faf du Plessis. A retro kind of batsman from his school days, du Plessis was much less celebrated than his star school mate, AB de Villiers. But the recent appointment as Test skipper has seen him becoming a core member of the squad. The confidence from his elevation to Test captaincy has seeped into du Plessis, the ODI player.

He is that kind of a man. There is this grit and resolve written into his skin much akin to that of Steve Waugh. When the chips are down, du Plessis has the ability to stand his ground and fight a battle as he proved in just his second Test match at Adelaide in a 376-ball blockathon that scripted a dream series win for South Africa in Australia.

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Like most players though, once his honeymoon period in Tests were done, his form deserted him. He was dropped from the side during the England series for sheer lack of runs. Although the comeback came quicker than expected, it was the elevation to captaincy that rebuilt his confidence and game.

A spectacular series in Australia followed where his leadership earned rave reviews. It can be safely assumed that du Plessis, the leader, had put his signature on Australian soil as a player and captain. Such was the manner in which he led his troops in the absence of his best batsman [AB de Villiers] and best bowlers [Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel] that even the ruthless Aussie media had words of praise for him. But it hasn't come easily for du Plessis.

The hard way in

While de Villiers shot into international limelight pretty early in his career, du Plessis, the leader of de Villiers right through his school years, had to bide his time. He went through a Kolpak deal early in his career where his fielding and stroke play got a lot of attention.

The timing of the expiry of his Kolpak deal coincided with a superb run of form in the South African domestic tournament, MTN40, as a result of which he was picked in the national team before the 2011 World Cup, where his quarter final knock against the Kiwis in a losing cause got noticed.

He was soon making his Test debut and in his second Test he made people sit up and take notice of his defensive skills on a seven and a half hour blockathon effort along with his beloved partner, de Villiers.

The indifferent start to ODIs

du Plessis' dream run continued in Tests but ODIs was a different story. His search for an ODI hundred continued through 50 ODIs, and despite his elevation to no. 3 in the line-up after Kallis' retirement, he had not really established himself in the squad.

Then came the first of his centuries in Zimbabwe in a Tri-Series against his favourite opposition, Australia. Two more hundreds followed in that series and du Plessis was on his way. He even became the second South African to hit a T20 hundred after Richard Levi before the 2015 World Cup.

Before and After first hundred in ODIs
Before first hundred2011-201450125629.200
After first hundred2014-201751246758.738

But was he shoulder to shoulder with the likes of Amla and de Villiers yet? No.

Then came the sluggish run when he was dropped from the Test squad. But he returned soon enough to not miss much of action and it turned out to be a career-changing comeback.

de Villiers and du Plessis are the most important players in the South African dressing room

Returning as skipper in the absence of AB de Villiers, du Plessis emerged out of the shadows of his school mate in a terrific display of tactical nous on a difficult Australian tour. But it wasn't his captaincy alone that benefitted. His form with the willow completely transformed. Even his catching and ground fielding elevated from good to spectacular. One handed stunners at slip by du Plessis have now become a common sight when South Africa bowl.

A spike in form

Since assuming the role of stand-in skipper before the series against New Zealand at home, the middle order batsman has accumulated 546 runs in 8 Tests at an average of 54.60 including two hundreds. The first came in the series against the Kiwis and the second against Australia in their backyard.

Test stats - Career vs Since captaincy
MatchesRunsHighest ScoreAverage100s
Since being captain before Kiwis series8546118*54.602

But it wasn't his Test form alone that was getting better. His One-Day international form changed too. He was already making some decent runs in ODIs even at the time of his drop from the Test squad, but the spike in form seeped into this format too.

du Plessis racked up 640 runs in 10 matches at an average of 71.11 with a highest of 185 against the Sri Lankans in Newlands this week.

ODI stats - Career vs Since captaincy
MatchesRunsHighest ScoreAverage100s
Since being Test captain1064018571.113

Interestingly the man agrees that captaincy turned on a switch inside him. "Being a captain makes me play better. That's possibly been a reason for my good form," du Plessis said in an interview with ESPNCricinfo post his 185, the second-highest score after Gary Kirsten by a South African in ODIs.

"The confidence and the momentum of that definitely helps. It just makes you raise your own bar of performance, you want to be a better player. My challenge to myself was to be a good player and now it's to become a great player. So it's just about lifting the bar and making a mind shift," du Plessis said.

Answering his critics

One criticism levied against du Plessis, the ODI player, in recent times, is his tendency to get bogged down at the crease during an innings. More often than not, South Africa have found themselves playing slowly in the middle period when du Plessis was occupying the crease.

After the initial burst from de Kock and Amla, du Plessis was turning out to be a not so needed defensive wall at no. 3. While his ability to stick around at times of crisis got deserved applause, his inability to go with the flow when a good start was provided earned huge criticism.

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Curiously, this was charged against previous South African middle order batsmen too. The likes of Jacques Kallis, Daryll Cullinan, Dale Benkenstein and Boeta Dippenaar faced similar criticism right through their careers.

But to his credit, that is changing. His recent surge in ODIs was accompanied by a conscious effort to kick on his strike rate. Although his overall strike rate sits at a decent 88, his last 10 matches reveal a strike rate of 98, a whopping jump from his career statistics.

In the last few matches, du Plessis has ensured he does not get stuck at the crease and keeps the scoreboard ticking even when the boundaries are hard to come by. It is worth noting that in the game he smashed 185, South Africa scaled a record for least number of dot balls in an ODI innings, 90.

Strike Rate transformation
ODI series since being Test captainMatchesRunsStrike Rate100s
v Australia525094.331
v Ireland12167.740
v Sri Lanka4369103.652

"That's my game, which is to not give many dot balls. I try and make sure I take pressure off myself by just rotating the strike and running well and, luckily in our team, we've got amazingly quick guys between the wickets and we've put a lot of pressure on the opposition," he stated after his knock at Newlands, as quoted from a report by ESPNCricinfo.

"Our ones and twos stats right through the series have been incredible - we've got two or three times the number of the Sri Lankans. That is so difficult to bowl to - when you get guys that continuously run you off your feet."

The future is his to rule

du Plessis has handled the pressures of captaincy very well

du Plessis has no doubt worked on his shortcomings in terms of strike rate and is well on his way to becoming a great for South African cricket. Combined with his astute cricketing brain, du Plessis is one senior figure in the side de Villiers can truly depend on.

His captaincy and smooth handling of media and pressure situations is also something the CSA executives will be closely watching. In his short time as skipper thus far, du Plessis has shown a no-nonsense approach in press conferences and has been pretty vocal, without crossing boundaries.

de Villiers may be the logical choice to captain the ODI team right now, but du Plessis is quickly earning a reputation as a leader of men, and it may not be long before he gets to skipper in all formats. After all, there isn't another member in the current squad who handles pressure better and gets so much support, as he showed during the ball tampering case against him in Australia.

Swag on, du Plessis! The Proteas need men like you.

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Edited by Staff Editor
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