The century scored by Faf du Plessis at Newlands was a superb innings that took the match away from Pakistan. It was especially significant because he had just bagged a pair in the earlier Test. But, Du Plessis does turn into a champion in the second Test of most series……
At Centurion, Faf du Plessis had made history. Of the rather questionable kind. He and Sarfraz Ahmed had just become the first pair of skippers to register pairs in unison.
Yes, Du Plessis had bagged a brace of ducks. The first time he had done so in his career. In two Tests, at Mohali in 2015 and at The Oval in 2017, he had managed a solitary run in two innings. But this had been the first time he had failed to score in both knocks.
When he came in to bat at Newlands, with the home team on 126 for 3 in reply to the paltry 177 of Pakistan, there was much to play for. An early wicket had fallen in the day, the pitch was deteriorating and without a big lead South Africans would be burdened with the dicey task of chasing a non-trivial target in the fourth innings.
Much needed to be done. More so when Theunys de Bruyn freed his arms and slashed at a wider one from Shaheen Afridi and was brilliantly held by Babar Azam at gully.
149 for 4 was not a safe score. Some resolute show was required, and the captain led from the front. It was a typical Du Plessis innings, dogged, determined and gritty. No frills, thoroughly pragmatic.
By tea, he and Temba Bavuma had taken the hosts to a position of strength. It was 281 for 4, Du Plessis was on 80.
He proceeded sedately, taking 46 more balls to get the remaining 20 runs for his hundred. Along the way, he was even put down by his opposite number, down the leg side off Mohammad Abbas. But ultimately it was Du Plessis who drove Mohammad Amir through the covers, scampered back for the third run to complete his century and raised his bat in a gesture of triumph.
The 103 he scored on the second day was decisive, leading to the 254-run lead and the eventual 9-wicket triumph. The pair of spectacles had been left behind at Centurion.
The Second Test Enigma
It would have been quite foolhardy of Pakistan to expect anything else. Du Plessis has a quirk.
Ostensibly he is a decent Test batsman, but nothing extraordinary in a cricket world which is currently witnessing the likes of Virat Kohli, Kane Williamson and Joe Root, and will soon see the return of Steven Smith. Even in his own land, in spite of admirers aplenty, it is AB de Villiers who used to hoard the limelight with his brilliance, Hashim Amla with his prolificacy.
The Protean skipper has 3408 runs from 56 Tests at 42.07, which make for good but less-than-phenomenal reading.
Yet, there are definitely occasions when he becomes a world beater.
In fact, a bit of time-‘series’- analysis tells us that he takes his while to warm up in a series, and his performances sort of taper down towards the end… but in the second Test of the series he becomes a truly world-class champion batsman.
The numbers are quite extraordinary.
Du Plessis has 960 runs at 32.00 in the 19 first Tests of the series that he has played, 659 at 34.68 in the 12 third Test matches of the series, and just 218 at 36.33 in the 3 fourth Tests. Very ordinary stats. He has one hundred apiece in the first, second and third Tests of a series.
However, in the second Tests that he has played, 21 of them, he has amassed 1468 runs at 58.72 with 6 hundreds and a magnificent conversion rate.
Faf du Plessis in Test series over his career
(There has been one solitary Only Test that Du Plessis has played. It was against Zimbabwe at Harare, 2014. He got 98 and 5 not out.)
The trend started right from the beginning of his career, when he got 78 and 110 not out on debut in the second Test at Adelaide, 2012.
In the following series, Du Plessis had a slow start, scoring 15 against New Zealand at Cape Town, following that up with 137 in the second Test at Port Elizabeth.
Over the years, this feature has continued.
Perhaps it is indicative of a good batsman taking his time to get into his groove in a series, reaching the height of his powers in the second Test, and then perhaps declining after all his resources have been used up.
It is a quirk not reflected in the other contemporary South African batsmen and has few historical parallels.
There have been a few others preferring particular matches of the series. Dean Jones, for example, had a hugely superior record in the fifth and sixth Tests of a series than the others. But this complete life-cycle of starting slow, peaking hugely and going down steeply during the course of a series is rather unique in the case of Du Plessis.
It was a brilliant innings that won the Test for South Africa. And unfortunately for Pakistan, they faced the genius second Test version of the split-batsmanship-personality of Du Plessis in the Newland Test.
Truly, he transforms into a world-class batsman in a rare Dr Jekyll Mr Hyde way.
The sides who are due to play South Africa in the immediate future may do well to take note.