Cape Town – It was a long time coming, but worth the wait when it did.
If AB de Villiers stole the show – that’s no rarity – his old “Affies” schoolmate Faf du Plessis was more than happy to play the role of main support actor as South Africa registered a near-crushing one-day international victory over Australia in Harare on Wednesday.
For in doing so, Du Plessis got a personal monkey off his back by achieving his maiden century in the format in his 51st appearance.
He has certainly had his ups and downs in the 50-overs landscape, since that promising debut against India at Newlands in early 2011 when he weighed in with an unfussed 60, albeit in eventual defeat under lights.
But perhaps those troubles can be put down to the fact that so many of his first half-century of ODI caps came with the gritty right-hander stationed around No 5 or 6 – slots to which it has become increasingly obvious he is far less suited.
In short, Du Plessis is a starter far more than he is a finisher, although a bit like an illustrious predecessor Jacques Kallis, he is well capable of translating a watchful start at limited-overs level into a barrage of genuinely searing stroke-play.
It is probably no coincidence that Wednesday’s 106 by him, achieved at better than a run a ball in a high-scoring encounter, was the culmination of a successful spell in his first settled employment at “first drop”.
In seven ODI games in that berth, starting with a match against Pakistan in Abu Dhabi last November, his successive scores read: 55, 10, 46 (all against the Pakistanis), 59, 55 and 40 in the bilateral series against Zimbabwe and now that first, overdue advance to three figures against the No 1-ranked Australians.
A reasonably later starter in international cricket, there are certain shades of Mike Hussey in the way the 30-year-old is now thriving routinely across the codes – it has been a fine South African winter for him in broad terms when you consider that he has also notched 266 runs in three Tests (two in challenging Sri Lankan conditions) at an average of 53.
But this ODI century will be deeply cherished, as Du Plessis readily admits that all too often he has got himself set without going on to produce the kind of scores required of a kingpin batsman in the top order.
He was a little naughty in getting dismissed to a skied catch to mid-wicket very soon after the elation of achieving the milestone; at the time he and his partner in enduring misery for the Aussie attack, De Villiers, were making the formidable chase look almost ridiculously simple and there was room to catch breath rather than fall prey to a needless speed wobble.
Du Plessis confessed afterwards that in succumbing when he did, he left the onus on his partner to apply the necessary finishing touches ... and at the time the more experienced De Villiers was suffering increasingly from the effects of cramp, an old bogey for him.
Still, with JP Duminy a fresh ally and in equally fluent touch, they polished off the remaining 70-odd runs in fewer than 10 overs to reach the required total of 328 – not quite the legend that is “438” but still with a nice ring to it, yes? – with all of 21 deliveries and seven wickets to spare.
In achieving an unbeaten 136 at a scalding strike rate of 128, De Villiers earned his second highest knock in 165 ODIs, falling short only of his 146 against West Indies at St George’s, Grenada, in the 2007 World Cup.
At times during their record-breaking stand of 206, the two friends had such a majestic grip over the ill-advisedly seam-loaded Aussie bowling that you imagined it was a bit like watching occasional alliances in their free-scoring heyday of Barry Richards and Graeme Pollock for the SA cause in Tests.
The Proteas certainly fired a deafening shot across the Aussie bows with the manner in which they chased down the rigorous requirement, in this first of eight likely bilateral encounters before the World Cup begins in Australasia in February.
Tempering things just a little was that even in the context of a particularly batting-friendly environment, South Africa’s earlier performance in the field left quite a bit to be desired, as the fast bowlers too often strayed from their lines – evidenced by 11 extra balls gifted through wides or no-balls – and the ground fielding was unusually scratchy as well.
The Proteas get an opportunity to buck up those departments
when they meet the three-pronged tournament’s glaring outsiders, Zimbabwe, on
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