Cricket's long gap MAY recharge Faf

Faf du Plessis (Gallo)
Faf du Plessis (Gallo)

Should Faf du Plessis really have recommitted to another full year of international cricket? Indeed, was he even worthy of a renewed Cricket South Africa contract in that regard?

It is an argument analysts, observers and fans are undoubtedly having.

Certainly there were some reactions of surprise when his name appeared recently among the 16-strong list of CSA contracted men’s players for 2020/21; it had been quite widely assumed that the former captain would target the early-season ICC Twenty20 World Cup in Australia as a Proteas swansong.

The well-travelled, battle-scarred batsman is well into his 36th year ... very much a time, I have long been adamant, when marathon-serving modern cricketers who so seldom get off the busy global-roster treadmill inevitably begin to succumb - and irreversibly in most cases - to the ravages of both mental and physical accumulative fatigue.

This phenomenon, depending on how young they were when they first started playing high-level cricket virtually around the annual clock, may take savage root at any time from around 32 or 33 onward, and simply accelerate despite some players’ most valiant (or occasionally denialist, naïve?) bids to resist it.

So there is quite an art to the timing of international retirements, and for me the beanpole, ever-popular pace bowler Morne Morkel is the best example in recent times of a South African who did it perfectly.

Morkel was 33, and had just strung together successive, massively compelling performances at the key tail-end of the unforgettable (if not always for the right reasons) series against visiting Australia in 2017/18 – including match figures of nine for 110 at Newlands - before stylishly pulling the plug, enriched by the knowledge that the Proteas had earned their overdue first home post-isolation series triumph over these great foes.

Reading decorated England batsman and captain Alastair Cook’s autobiography (Penguin Random House UK) recently helped reaffirm my own view on Morkel: “Morne Morkel, a really nice guy, caused me a lot of grief down the years ... he was probably at his peak as a bowler when he retired from international cricket in 2018.

“Tall and quick without being an absolute rocket, his natural shape, angling it in, was so awkward for left-handers. He had tended to bowl half a yard too short, but once he picked up the knack of finding the perfect length for challenging the top of off-stump, he was hard, hard work.”

Another notable South African icon, Graeme Smith, also quit at 33, even as he no doubt wrestled reasonable possibilities that he might press on productively enough.

Never the deftest for footwork - his finest attributes lay in other areas - “Biff” would nevertheless have listened to smarter sides of his brain suggesting he had slipped beyond his illustrious peak; he had come off an unusually miserable personal home series against Australia (surrendered 2-1, in 2013/14) when he called time at his beloved Newlands.

I do wonder, with some ruefulness, whether another Proteas legend of the modern era, Hashim Amla, just left his international retirement (at 36) a tad too late; that he was, in retrospect, a little too generous with his ongoing loyalty at a time when his experience admittedly seemed a vital balancer for the team.

Once comfortably holding batting averages well into the 50s in both Tests and one-day internationals during a glittering heyday as an accumulator, his figures had dipped cruelly and fairly substantially when he did stop.

Is Du Plessis quite possibly in the “Amla boat”, then?

Apart from being very close to him now in comparative age terms at the time Amla was still active, Du Plessis undoubtedly showed worrying signs over the course of the latest home international summer of a waning pattern of performance: he played 11 international knocks across two formats (Tests against England, T20s against Australia) and could only manage a top score of 36 in the Port Elizabeth Test match.

I am not massively hopeful that the yeoman-serving player, who has overseen or at very least been involved in both giddying triumphs and moments of plumb-the-depths SA despair, will manage ever to return to his premier levels in Proteas colours, even if his white-ball stats still hold up particularly well.

But there is one thing to consider, in his inadvertent favour.

The massive, planet-wide coronavirus lockdown looks increasingly likely to wipe out several months of cricket.

There is talk, just for example, of no four-day County Championship format at all in the UK this season, to facilitate a potential glut of international and profit-generating T20-geared activity from the July midway sort of mark if there’s a go-ahead by then ... and even that the T20 World Cup in October is endangered.

Similarly, the annual Indian Premier League, already pushed back to a possible delayed start in mid-April but increasingly unlikely then, would normally be demanding the exertions of Du Plessis - a virtual ever-present in it from 2011 onward - round about now.

He would also have expected to be part of traditional, mid-winter activity for the Proteas, this year supposedly a two-format white-ball series in Sri Lanka and Tests in the West Indies, but both already flirting with cancellation or postponement.

So he, and others of similar vintage and huge volume of cricketing career “air miles”, can just begin to contemplate this novelty: a complete off-season.

We do know that Du Plessis tends to keep himself in admirable overall physical condition, despite often wrestling the drawback of old shoulder and other troubles, and it is just possible that a few consecutive months away from the “middle” will spark some pronounced fresh mental lustre in him that hadn’t been budgeted for several weeks ago, ahead of the formidable pandemic.

A worthy last push at some stage in Proteas colours?

Don’t too fulsomely write it off.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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