How Faf du Plessis, more than most, embodied SA v Aussie rivalry

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Faf du Plessis an Steve Smith in 2016 (Getty)
Faf du Plessis an Steve Smith in 2016 (Getty)

The news that the highly-anticipated three-Test tour between the Proteas and Australia had been scrapped, given the intensity of the rivalry between the sides, came as a bombshell.

The fixtures would have been played behind closed doors, but the series would have been gripping viewing throughout, even if the transitional Proteas started as underdogs on their own turf.

Such Test series do not happen often in the current climate, and this was one to look forward to.

Now, with the white ball formats taking centre stage for the rest of the South African season, it is not clear when the Proteas will see Test cricket again.

Cricket South Africa (CSA) was understandably frustrated at the decision taken by Cricket Australia to cancel, and while much of that will have to do with the financial knock of losing a high-profile home series, it is also worth considering how this stunts the development of the Proteas under coach Mark Boucher.

This could have been an opportunity to trial a new Test captain, while for a host of relative newcomers to the format it would have been a timely test of their credentials as well as an opportunity to grow.

What we do know now, though, is that whenever the Proteas do play red ball cricket again, they will do so without their veteran and former skipper Faf du Plessis

Now 36, Du Plessis has called it a day on the Test stage and it is hard to imagine that decision would have come on Wednesday had the Aussie series still been on.

More than almost any other South African in recent times, Du Plessis has embodied the heated rivalry that has existed between the sides.

Ever since his Test debut in Adelaide back in 2012, where his marathon 466-minute 110* famously saved the Test match for South Africa and went a long way towards winning the series, Du Plessis against Australia has been a special contest. 

Du Plessis then scored 78* and 27 in the third Test, where Hashim Amla (196) and AB de Villiers (169) were at their best, and the Proteas left with a 1-0 Test series win to savour. 

Du Plessis was quieter in the home series against the Aussies in 2014, which the visitors won 2-1, but his role in one of cricket's most enticing contests reached new heights when he returned to Australia in 2016 as captain of his country. 

It was on that tour where 'Mintgate' rocked the cricketing world after Du Plessis was captured, on camera, seemingly using a mint in his mouth to help shine the ball during the second Test in Hobart. 

The reaction from the Australian public and the global cricket community was near-brutal, and few fans will forget the scenes of Du Plessis being harassed by journalists at Adelaide airport after arriving for the third and final Test. 

The skipper responded in the only way he knew how, by scoring 118* in the first innings in Adelaide - a ground he will remember fondly in his retirement - despite being 'Public Enemy Number One' in Australia. 

The Proteas lost the Test, but Du Plessis' charges had already bagged the series and they returned home as 2-1 winners. 

Du Plessis, twice since his debut series, had come home from Australia a winner.

Easily the most heated series against Australia that Du Plessis was involved in, though, was on South African soil in early 2018 when the infamous 'Sandpapergate' unfolded. 

Australia's ball-tampering at Newlands resulted in the darkest period in their cricketing history as the Proteas, with Du Plessis their skipper, secured a commanding 3-1 series win. 

Before the tampering, there was the changeroom bust-up at Kingsmead and the Kagiso Rabada v Steve Smith 'shoulder charge' in Port Elizabeth.

After it was all over, Du Plessis referred to the series as somewhat of a soap opera and, as has so often been the case over the years, he had a leading role.

Du Plessis struggled for runs throughout that 2018 series but, in the Johannesburg dead-rubber, he hit 120 in the second innings to spark another South African win. 

Over four series, Du Plessis has played against Australia 12 times - he has not played more against any other nation - averaging 46.73 against them with those three tons to his name.

He averages 83.16 'Down Under'. 

Under Du Plessis' leadership, the Proteas have won 5 of their last 7 Tests against Australia and, since his debut, the Proteas have won 7 of their last 12 matches against Australia involving Du Plessis with one draw. 

While he misfired in Pakistan recently, it seemed like Du Plessis still had a significant role to play in South African Test cricket, even at the age of 36. 

His experience and proven pedigree would have been extremely beneficial to the Proteas over the next few weeks, but for the fan it would have simple been intriguing to see that battle renewed. 

On many levels, the tables have turned since 'Sandpapergate'.

Australia, with Smith and David Warner in tow, would have arrived in this country with a point to prove given what happened three years earlier. 

And with how fragile the Proteas have looked recently, it would have taken one heck of an effort from the hosts to come out of this one with a positive result. 

In Du Plessis, they had a man built for exactly that kind of scrap, and it really is a shame that we won't get to see him lock horns with his greatest rivals one last time.

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