The bat of Faf du Plessis is not smiling these days.
Yet another press conference was in full swing a day before the Wanderers Test. The South Africans had seen countless ones since the onset of this controversial series but this one seemed subdued, almost like a funeral speech.
Faf du Plessis genuinely expressed his concern for what Steven Smith was going through when one of the journalist’s phone, kept near him to record, blasted out a bizarre ringtone.
The South African skipper was all smiles l, and responded with a quirky comment – “That’s a shocking ringtone.” He was all smiles and went on to crack a couple more jokes and the heat in the room had instantly been absorbed.
"That's a shocking ringtone." ?
Faf du Plessis reacts to his press conference being interrupted. pic.twitter.com/HQ9Hao45CX
— ESPN UK (@ESPNUK) March 29, 2018
That’s Faf du Plessis for you. Charismatic, charming, yet overpowering in his own, flamboyant way, the Titans middle-order batsman has become a crowd favourite for his swag and persona.
“When you see an Indian side with Ganguly in the line-up, you know it’s game on,” Steve Waugh once said of Sourav Ganguly. The same holds true for Faf du Plessis and South Africa. Having lived in the shadows of his more popular friend and schoolmate, AB de Villiers, for a long time, du Plessis’ claim to fame came with his captaincy.
He led with panache and flair, leading the side to a fabulous Test series win in Australia despite losing his premier fast bowler, Dale Steyn, in the opening day of the series. The mintgate saga further brought the Proteas fans behind du Plessis, an ironic statement in the aftermath of the ball tampering fiasco at Cape Town that had his counterpart Steven Smith in tears.
Such was du Plessis’ authority and command over his personnel that his place despite a slew of batting failures was rarely questioned. Then came Wanderers and the raw pulchritude of Aiden Markram in full bloom. South Africa were already ahead in the series and were playing a depressed, depleted, devastated Australian side.
Markram’s brilliance combined with de Villiers’ soothing batsmanship had virtually taken the game away from the visitors when Pat Cummins, the sole Aussie who found enough steam to run in hard on the final day of the previous Test after the Smith – Bancroft press conference on day 3, broke through with Markram’s wicket.
In walked Faf du Plessis. His previous scores in the series were 15, 4, 9, 2*, 5 and 20. Against India prior to this, he was equally shoddy racking up 62, 0, 63, 48, 8 and 2. His last hundred had come against Bangladesh way back in October. The one before that was against Australia at Adelaide in the pink ball Test in 2016. It was ages ago.
But there was no pressure. He was captain beloved of South Africa. Runs had deserted him, but not his ardent fan following.
Cummins steamed in and bowled length, moving the ball back into the South African skipper. du Plessis, as nonchalant as his quirky comments, took a forward stride and raised his arms to leave the ball which kept low and swung in much to his dismay. He was stuck in his crease, ducked a touch almost as though the ball had severely misbehaved and barely looked at the umpire or his schoolmate as he trudged back to resume his evening tea. A golden duck for the leader. Another failure. It was starting to trend now.
The mojo of the man who strode out at Adelaide on his debut to salvage a Test match had gone missing in du Plessis’ batting in the past few months. The swag remains intact. The footwork immaculate. The backlift and technique perfect. What’s bizarre is he seems confused about which stroke to play.
This wasn’t the first time du Plessis was shouldering arms to a ball coming into him. At The Oval in July last year, he left an inswinger from James Anderson to be trapped in front for 1. In the second innings of the same Test, he left another one swinging in, this time from Ben Stokes, and was gone for a golden duck.
Against India, last series, Jasprit Bumrah and his awkward incoming angle caused quite a few issues for du Plessis (and his cohorts!). At Johannesburg, in the third Test, he shouldered arms to one that crash-landed on top of off-stump.
The error in judgement has been too huge to miss. Quite a few times the South African has been left flabbergasted by the ball coming into him but what is appalling is how he has offered no shot to quite a few of them. His judgement of the stumps, a batting fundamental that would probably go in the first 5 pages of a 250-page batting manual, is failing him horribly.
He has been placed on a high pedestal by fans and is loved and adored as a skipper. But none of these can substitute for runs with the bat which he sorely needs. A quick visit back to the early chapters of the batting manual might be on the cards for the South African skipper.