When AB left for good!
It may not be wrong to suggest that right at the beginning of the Indian summer of 2018, did fans embrace a tragedy here. Even as it took place in South Africa, its ripples were felt far and wide beyond the Madiba-land.
Interestingly, this was a peculiar event in the sense that it spelt a tragedy even as there was nothing mortally damaging about it.
That AB De Villiers called time on his career wasn’t just a sad day; it was more.
And it is something that pure lovers of the game might recall with a particular distaste even in times to come given the magical nature of the sportsman involved.
Facebook went on an emotional overdrive as Twitter produced more Tweets per minute on the Superman of cricket than ever seen thus far.
When Faf took charge in the real sense of the word
But that event did raise a few questions concerning South Africa. In the dying moments of 2017, it became clear why South Africa are rated so highly. One saw in Markram, a genuine future leader.
We also saw, the collective bench strength of one of the most superior outfits in the game persisting with JP Duminy, not necessarily in the best of forms.
And finally, when the mind of the die-hard Protea lover found time to reflect on a plausible query, one dealing with existential crises- “What next, after De Villiers”- there emerged some belief.
That South Africa still had Amla, de Kock, and ‘Killer Miller’, provided a sense of solidity in the unit, particularly from the standpoint of the 2019 World Cup even as no emphatic gesture attributed to the magic that only AB could’ve brought in the tournament would ever suffice.
And finally, that a certain Faf Du Plessis was still very much around offered a sense of reassurance that guys with experience can bring. And then, immediately thereafter, with South Africa contesting in a series after another, the games in Sri Lanka, followed by the visit of Zimbabwe to the Protea-land, followed by Pakistan, as seen recently, sort of dented the confidence one carried in Faf.
Ordinary Test form but shiny ODI form
And if in case, one had great doubts about the above assertion, then a mere look at Faf’s figures in 2018 offer an explanation.
At that time of the year, where one enthusiastically reflects on all that’s been achieved, one’s not sure that Faf would like very much his gathering from the 5-dayers.
That he could only collect 463 runs but from 20 innings, at an average more modest than the economy of a third-world country (with all due respect): 24 didn’t cut a promising picture.
That Faf had more opportunities to go out and collect valuable scores for his side than he’s ever had in his career underline what was a poorly drafted narrative, but one concerning a cricket side that’s about exhilaration.
So if you were a concerned Protean fan wondering what’s going to happen to ‘my dear team’ or any cricket lover from Virat-land, from the land of Sir Alastair Cook, or someone who witnessed a spirited batting resistance forged Down Under, you didn’t admire a lot about Faf this year.
Why Faf matters
To make matters worse, your concerns about Faf Du Plessis’ batting form, in particular, were exacerbated by the familiar issues that Hashim Amla mirrored during the same course of time, in 2018. To make matters worse, with Markram only just born in international cricket with Duminy, finally finding some lost touch in the longest format, but only just, a lot seemed missing at the core of the South African batting- did it not?
In that sense, you couldn’t be blamed about meandering with the ‘what could have’ zone; what if AB was still around?
But here’s the thing that perhaps one seems to have missed out on concerning Du Plessis.
Is he a cricketer who co-habits a rare league- inconsistent but gifted defined by belligerent striking- of the kinds to which a Mark Waugh, Richie Richardson, Brendon Taylor- belong?
Is Faf one of those guys who can fail in the longer narrative of the game, arguably to the flaws that, do not seem to feature in other formats?
Because if you observed the indifference of an opinion he attracted largely to the inconsistencies of his batting in 2018, then this seems rather true.
In a year where the South African captain, with 55 Tests disappointed in the longer format- although managing a century while the more experienced Amla, 120 Tests, failed to do so- Faf’s ODI tally surprised remarkably.
It showcased a feistiness that beckons to be taken into consideration before shoving aside one of the game’s most attractive shot-makers. That Faf Du Plessis amassed 434 runs from 8 ODIs in 2018 but with an average of 62, the highest he’s reached in a seven-year ODI run, attracts as much as it makes him a subject of polarizing cricketing debate.
To top it up, a year where the dashing right-hander couldn’t even increase proximity to blokes like Kohli, Pujara, Willaimson, on pure form seemingly compensated the lack of Test runs by scoring 2 impressive ODI hundreds, ending his ODIs with a strike rate of 96.
And that, there’s little doubt about what he can achieve given his ballsy batting in ODIs excites the Protean fan just as much as it opens a Pandora’s box about the 34-year-old’s consistency.
Nothing could motivate South Africa about fostering a World Cup chance as much as reflecting upon the fact that men who form the key nucleus of the side- Amla, de Kock, Faf- each have over 16000 ODI runs among them, moreover with each pillar of the Protean trinity having scored over 150 as a personal best.
But whether they can come together as a unit to truncate the lasting of their opponents when it most matters, minus De Villiers among them leaves room for some circumspection.
That said, one would hope for Faf to reflect on his key strength, one that compliments his surge to explore runs on either side of the wicket, as reflected by rasp cuts and flicky strokes: the ability to bring the side together.
As someone who’s walked among legends- Kallis, Smith, Steyn and AB- and is now leading an army of new-age warriors- Rabada, Klassen, Markram, de Kock- Faf finds himself at a unique crossroads where experience (in Amla, Duminy, Steyn) meets the exuberance.
In that regard, Faf- currently under pressure of having endured a poor year- would do well to reflect on his own 2016-17 Test form, a season that fetched over 1200 Test runs at 54.
What lies ahead?
In the same light, his critics, too excited to snub him at the back of a poor year are forgetting that Francois Du Plessis had indicated what he’s capable of in only his maiden series.
In the wake of De Villiers’ sudden departure, have we completely lost faith in old-hands like him? It wasn’t De Villiers, Kallis, or Smith who rescued the Proteas in that famous Adelaide draw, 2010 when playing only his maiden Test a 466-minute effort would bring the handsome face to the attention of worldwide media?
Moreover, for a man who wears cool weathers on his sleeves, underneath which remain drool-worthy, Insta-ideal brawns seems to like a good challenge as much as he desires in stoking the Protea fire.
A rather sedate effort, when compared to his 185 in ODIs- that 120 at the Wanderers Test in March 2018 against the Aussies- explains.
Keep fighting Faf!