Remember a dejected Faf du Plessis turning back to the dressing room to offer a wry smile in India after losing the toss? The jawline cut straight out of a Hollywood movie hero, chiseled abs that stare through the Test whites and the smirk-oozing smile out of the corner of his lips couldn’t hide the desperation in du Plessis’ face. This was day one of South Africa’s Test series in India and the captain, a charismatic figure who once dared to douse a David Warner fire with just a towel on, already appeared out of hope and it showed in the series result.
Du Plessis is his own man. He calls the shots, has the authority and audacity to command his troops and is an exuberant, yet resilient figure in the South African dressing room ever since he dead-batted those arch-rivals on a hot day in Adelaide for 376 deliveries. He was at the forefront of South Africa’s blockathon tactic and the captain leading the charge in their famous home series win against the Aussies in 2018.
But, is du Plessis the batsman hiding behind runs against lesser opposition and living on his past reputation? Stats show that du Plessis’ returns have dwindled against the bigger sides since 2017 – a time when AB de Villiers appeared fickle, Hashim Amla faltered as a Test player and Aiden Markram appeared inconsistent.
Against India, Australia, New Zealand and England, du Plessis averages 29.31 in Tests since 2017. It is worth mentioning that du Plessis started his career averaging 146.5 in 2012, with telling knocks against Australia. Till 2017, against these very four teams, the current Proteas skipper averaged 44.83. The drop in average is significant here, but his overall average hasn’t suffered too much as a result of runs against lower sides – a notable jump from 43.7 to 53.42 since 2017 against these teams.
At Newlands against England, as South Africa were attempting another blockathon to eke out a draw, du Plessis was naturally called upon at a crucial juncture. With Pieter Malan on his debut holding fort at one end, du Plessis had a pillar at the other end, comfortable in his bubble, soaking in the pressure.
After 57 deliveries of resilience and with three overs to go to the second new ball, du Plessis bent low to sweep Dom Bess out of the rough and gifted a catch to Joe Denly at square leg. Uncharacteristic in many ways to the 2012 du Plessis who toiled through the ranks, gave up a Kolpak deal and returned to fight it out for a Proteas cap.
Even if the gritty image that du Plessis built in those days is a hard one to replace, this dismissal was pretty much in sync with the du Plessis we know of late. Since 2018, the South African skipper has batted 36 times for South Africa in whites, making 15 single-digit scores in the process, a frequency of a single digit score roughly every second innings. On the other hand, he makes a fifty-plus score every 5th innings on an average in this time frame. The difference is telling.
The onus on du Plessis in this current middle-order is massive. With Dean Elgar and Quinton de Kock – the two experienced batters aside from him in the side – stuck at two ends of the batting order, rallying together the actual middle-order is du Plessis’ job, one which he increasingly appeared to have handed over to two-Test old Rassie van der Dussen in this series.
From no. 4, a position du Plessis has never made his own in Tests, the skipper has failed to dictate terms as he would have liked. His batting average drops into the less-than-30 circle from this position while he averages above 40 when batting one place above or below.
Will a switch to no. 3 work for du Plessis now that van der Dussen has shown he can hold his own at no. 5? With the team lacking experience, he isn’t disposable material yet and du Plessis knows that. Despite riding through two years of mind-boggling dismissals including leaving twice to lose his stumps and getting cleaned up by part-timer Dimuth Karunaratne, du Plessis has the aura of a Test batsman who can save, boost or guide an innings.
But can he guide them consistently from the middle-order? Stats reveal du Plessis to be a good enough wall who falters as much as he clicks in a crisis situation, one South Africa find themselves in with the bat way too often nowadays.
Since 2018, du Plessis has walked out to bat with the team score less than 100 on 22 of the 36 occasions he has batted. It tells a tale of South Africa’s top-order vulnerability. Faf du Plessis has bailed them out and pushed them to a score above 100 before getting out on 11 of these 22 occasions. On 10 other occasions, though, he fell before he could get them to 100.
14 out of 22 times, he was the first batsman to be dismissed after walking in with the team score below 100. It says that his stability could actually make South Africa’s top-order better. Once the crisis man in the team, du Plessis watched as Pieter Malan, now his possible competitor in an imaginary body building show, did his job with aplomb at Cape Town. If only du Plessis had stayed, the result would have been better. Not just at Cape Town. A lot of times since 2018, South Africa wished their captain had stayed longer.