“We don’t only want to win in South Africa,” declared South Africa’s captain Faf Du Plessis upon arriving at Galle, for the first Test.
Sri Lanka was waiting.
But none knew just how desperately they waited what now looks a live wire of a series. No bookie, who’d seen either sides’ recent form would’ve bet a single dollar on the tiny island nation and boom, a loud sound roars.
It takes flat 54 overs for the hosts to bundle out South Africa.
The Die-hard fan who’s seen De Villiers’ paint artworks out of innings, and witnessed destruction from the mighty quartet of Amla, Steyn, Rabada and, Philander is distraught.
Heads are shaking inside the TV for the players. Heads are shaking outside it.
It doesn’t make much sense.
Sri Lanka managed an underwhelming 287 but what about South Africa?
126 all out. South Africa have been sold a dummy
Someone bullied the bully.
But one man ensures that somehow South Africa reach beyond hundred and eventually post a total of over 120.
He sticks out for over 2 hours and defies Dilruwan, Herath, and Lakmal when Amla, de Kock, Markram and, Elgar have all failed him.
Faf Du Plessis has struck 49 off 88.
He somehow managed to do more than just put bat to ball, but find boundaries that none of his teammates imagined.
On the very day, Faf turns 34, has been treated to a mega-collapse.
But he seems glad to offer something ‘face-saving.’
Faf Du Plessis wasn’t born to South Africa amid wild-celebrations, laughter or cheer.
His genesis in cricket was amid fiery times, albeit one that very nearly turned disappointing.
Rather, make that soul-crushing.
Let’s rewind the clocks back to the scenes at Adelaide, 2012
It’s November. Australia is hosting South Africa for 3 Tests.
The first has been a draw but hasn’t produced anything electrifying for the tourists.
At Adelaide, Australia haven’t just batted; they’ve smoked out South Africa.
Clarke and Hussey have engineering mammoth innings, the former striking a double-hundred against Steyn, Morkel and Kallis.
It seems fidgety and one-sided.
Making 550, 267 for 8, Australia set South Africa 430 to win
They have exactly a day and a half to chase.
It seems a tough ask. It’s one of those laughable jokes the bartender tells you long after bar-time is over, knowing well your receptivity level is zilch, you’re sloshed.
Eventually, South Africa’s top-four- Petersen, Graeme Smith, Amla, Rudolph- contribute 44.
De Villiers produces a blocakthon, in staying out for 220 balls for a well-compiled 33. Kallis plays his hand in his 46. But you rewind your mind to the scorecard- 430 are needed?
That is when a charming, unknown batsman holds Peter Siddle, Ben Hilfenhaus, Nathan Lyon at bay.
He collects a 110 on his Test debut.
He goes on to bat well into the final day saving South Africa the blues.
He’s managed to stitch a partnership even with Steyn and Morkel. And in the process, he’s faced 376 balls on his own.
Faf Du Plessis takes South Africa onto safer shores and saves them the ignominy of defeat on a peach of a batting wicket.
But, to understand the enormity of Faf’s effort, you need to take cognizance of his abilities throughout the Test.
In the first innings, he made 78 and batted for nearly 205 minutes. He followed it with an exhibition of quintessential South African stoicism with their backs against the wall, battling for a mammoth 466 minutes.
Australia gets a whiff of a man who’s produced a tour de force under extreme pressure.
World cricket has seen those bulging biceps for the first time and they carved a hundred with immense grit.
Did Lara, Sachin, Kallis or Dravid stay on the crease for 671 minutes on their debut?
There are things that only Faf Du Plessis can do.
Let’s dispense with silly titles and adages.
Faf is no AB De Villiers or Virat Kohli, let’s get that straight.
He doesn’t possess the aesthetically pleasing sight of a very-wristy Amla. He doesn’t send bowlers into a state of a coma the way De Villiers did. Neither does Faf immediately replenish the onlooker with the pleasantness Williamson unfurls.
What Faf does, however, is to marry caution with aggression like few others can.
The same Du Plessis, who constructed a monument of focus in Adelaide can unravel very feisty weapons from his batting arsenal. In the summers of 2017, when Sri Lanka toured South Africa, they didn’t know that Faf had other plans in his mind.
At Cape Town, in the fourth ODI, Faf moved the Protea fan to the edge of his seat and those from the opposite number in immense admiration.
He plundered 185 and South Africa produced a carnage in their 367.
Was he the same steady bloke behind the 110 at Adelaide?
He reverse-swept, played the scoop, launched into a bevy of cover and square drives and made life difficult for headline writers in newspaper columns.
What was he, you wondered stunned? Was this merely aggressive intent or was this stuff out the box.
It made sense to suggest it was vintage Faf.
For some, the shot of the day may have been the very Dilshan-styled scoop he produced that went for 6 in the closing stages.
But none seemed better than his cover drive of Kulasekara, wherein the belligerent right-hander danced down the track to open the gap.
He bettered de Kock’s 178 and stopped 3 runs shy of Kirsten’s 188. But it didn’t matter.
Faf plays to win.
Since 2012, 17 centuries and nearly 8000 international runs later, Du Plessis is learning every day to be one with the game; to lift the spirits of fans who don’t see in South Africa just a big cricket side, rather an undaunted force.
Faf, it could be said, has pretty much done it all.
He’s kissed the forehead of Kagiso Rabada in front of a live press conference, with the pacer decimating Australia in 2016, he’s seen a shock Proteas World Cup 2015 exit, waved goodbye to the giant Morkel and, even managed to paint headlines dark with a lamentable ball-tampering saga.
But Faf’s competitiveness hasn’t left him.
Behind the beautiful eyes and muscles ornamented by sweat and swagger, rests a steely resolve.
Today, Faf Du Plessis’ task is even tougher. Probably he knows it just as much as do adoring fans.
There’s no AB.
Amla is aging.
Elgar doesn’t really fit in the ODIs and de Kock along with Miller seem the only rising hopes for Markram is too young to depend on completely.
South Africans are once again eyeing the elusive.
Perhaps they know deep inside that they are somewhere left utterly stunned by De Villiers’ whimsical departure.
But in Faf Du Plessis, they should be glad, very glad, they have one of modern cricket’s understated olympians. How long can Faf run with the baton called South Africa, we don’t know.
But what we do know, is that the journey of Faf seems utterly intoxicating.