After years in the wilderness, a chance opening gave Faf du Plessis the gap he needed, Neil Manthorp reports.
Faf du Plessis is the classic "overnight" sensation. During the last tour of Australia, it was JP Duminy, the man whose Achilles tendon injury afforded Du Plessis the chance to make his debut and have the greatest impact on the result of the series.
The "classic" part, of course, comes from the fact that many, many years of hard work and dedication go into the creation of an overnight success – in Du Plessis's case, more than a decade.
Having failed to lock down a place at the Titans after his great Afrikaans Hoër Seunskool friend and contemporary, AB de Villiers, established himself in national colours, Du Plessis took himself off to pastures new in England, where he was welcomed with open arms by Lancashire.
There were fears that he may be lost forever to the land of his birth on the "KP [Kevin Pietersen] highway" but that was not something he considered seriously. The dream he fulfilled during the past fortnight was the one that sustained him then.
A first innings of 78 on debut made a tremendous impression in Adelaide, but South Africa batted poorly, although not nearly as poorly as they bowled. With more than 140 overs to bat to save the game and four wickets down before the final day even began, nobody seriously gave South Africa a chance. It would provide a romantic twist to the tail to say "nobody but Faf" – but it would not be true.
He batted almost eight hours for his unbeaten 110 in the second innings, more than four of them in the company of De Villiers.
"Afterwards, it was the most proud and pleased I have ever felt for another player ever," said De Villiers. "We've come a long way together. We met when we were eight or nine years old. We didn't like each other then because we were always playing against each other at primary school, but from high school onwards we became the very best of mates."
Graeme Smith spoke afterwards about the unique characteristics of Test cricket, which stretches a player's endurance limitations like nothing else in cricket.
"It's definitely the form of the game you want to be playing," agreed Du Plessis. "Everyone tells you that it's proper cricket and that nothing else compares to it. Now that I have tasted it I completely agree. Physically and mentally, nothing compares. After five days of battle, like we had at Adelaide, you feel like you have run the Comrades. The last hour in Adelaide was the greatest physical and mental challenge I have ever faced."
Unbelievably, more was to come in the decider in Perth when he bailed South Africa out of an equally desperate hole at 76-6 to make a first innings total of 225. It left him with an aggregate of 293 runs at an average of 146.5. Not the worst start to a Test career.
"We told him at our end-of-tour fines meeting that he was our man of the series," De Villiers said. "Michael Clarke got it, and rightly, because of his two double hundreds … but Faf made the greatest contribution to the result of the series."
Du Plessis did not expect the award, but he was clearly touched by the sentiments of his teammates. "Scoring two double hundreds in successive matches is just ridiculous, so Clarkey was the only choice. But it was special to hear the boys say what they did."
Du Plessis said there was a "good feeling" before the final Test, mostly (and ironically) because Australia had played so well in the first two.
"The Aussies put us under serious pressure and they dominated so many sessions. When they gained the momentum, they really punished us; it was all we could do to hang on. But we all had a very strong sense after Adelaide that the Aussies had thrown everything they had in their armoury at us and we had not fallen – we survived.
"We felt that it was too much for them to come back at us another time. They had thrown too many punches, and our time was going to come. And that's the way it happened. They started nicking the ball instead of missing it and our bowlers were incredible after we thought we were going to be in trouble with a first innings total of 225. The way Graeme, Hash [Hashim Amla] and AB batted was just … ridiculous," Du Plessis said.
The hero of the tour was not on the aeroplane with the rest of the team. Instead, he travelled to Melbourne to play a single game for the Renegades in the Big Bash T20. He is scheduled to land back in South Africa on the morning of December 9.
If the Titans have qualified for the semifinals of the Momentum Cup, he will play for them the same day. "It will be hard, but I can have a rest after the final. Sorry, after we have won the final."
There is a lot to be said for the power of positive thought.