Faf goes backwards, forwards

Faf du Plessis (AFP)
Faf du Plessis (AFP)
Cape Town - Just for the moment, Faf du Plessis looks a mini-Mike Brearley for confusing, mixed contribution to the South African cricket cause.

It has to be considered doubtful whether the Affies-schooled captain of the Proteas’ Twenty20 international team will ever emulate the leadership legend of the former England skipper, who later also penned a seminal book titled “The Art of Captaincy”.

Few worldwide probably can, in truth.

But these men have something in common right now: their holding of the tiller a far more assured string to their respective bows than personal achievement at the crease.

Brearley led England to some notable conquests between 1977 and 1981, primarily at Test level, but his tenure was also marked by desperately limited personal weight of runs: he averaged 22.88 in 39 Tests and 24.28 in 25 one-day internationals.

But as long as the country was primarily winning, people were prepared to overlook such statistical limitations with the blade by the brilliant scholar, who doubles as a now 71-year-old psychoanalyst and current chairman of the MCC World Cricket Committee.

There is already one crucial point of difference between Brearley and Du Plessis: the latter has made a near-runaway start to his Test career - something South Africans must be careful not to lose sight of - as he averages almost 70 from his first seven appearances in the prestigious five-day arena.

He also sports two centuries from only 10 Test innings ... something Brearley could not manage once in 66.

But the very minor parallel you can begin to consider is because Du Plessis, 29, has had such an awful run as a batsman on the limited-overs tour of Sri Lanka - yet also just overseen successive, series-clinching wins in the T20 series immediately following a 4-1 ODI hiding when old schoolmate AB de Villiers was in charge.

It would probably be far too simplistic to say the guiding hand of Du Plessis has meant everything in the amazing little turnaround (suddenly South Africa are eyeing an unlikely 3-0 sweep of T20 series with one more to play in Hambantota on Tuesday).

We must not kid ourselves: No 1-ranked Sri Lanka have looked complacent and flaky on the batting front in the earliest T20 combat, where Kumar Sangakkara has stood out like a beacon of sanity in a sea of home-team ineptitude which is taking some of the gloss off their significant 50-overs superiority.

Also to chew on is that bilateral T20 series continue to command minimal gravitas in the greater scheme of things: the cricket planet isn’t suddenly trembling because South Africa, warts and all, have squeezed out two wins on the trot, out of familiar habitat.

But at the same time the animated, urgent, calculating and decisive figure of Du Plessis has clearly been a strong factor in extracting previously absent zest from his charges, who might well have entered the T20 phase with a dangerous “one foot on the plane” mindset after the ODI hammerings.

Instead the bowlers and fielders, particularly, have cranked up their performances fairly dramatically to put the boot on the other foot to a good degree on Friday and Sunday: there’s been a unity of purpose and spring in the collective step seldom evident in the prior 50-overs contests.

Du Plessis was assertive and motivationally inspirational in the first T20 victory at Colombo, where deft strategic qualities and a cool head were required - and delivered by him - during a memorable defence of a meagre total.

What hasn’t gone away yet, however, has been frailty in the Proteas’ batting, and especially near the top where Du Plessis has floundered as glaringly as those around him.

Again on Sunday, South African won despite, rather than due to, the start they had got at the crease: they were fairly quickly 48 for three and that is a syndrome that has, generally speaking, stalked them for seven limited-overs clashes thus far in Sri Lanka.

Du Plessis has stayed consistent only in his alarming under-delivery as a batsman.

Although he was castled by a brilliant Lasith Malinga delivery in the latest match, he notched only 12 to accompany his eight in the earlier T20 fixture.

That has kept him in roughly the same league of disappointment that characterised his ODI portion of the visit, where scores of four, eight, 16, 23 and six saw him average a pitiful 11.40.

He is struggling grimly at present in both abbreviated formats for the country - his last four T20 knocks have produced a mere 27 runs, whilst in ODIs it is now 15 innings since he registered a half-century against top-tier foes (if you remove the 62 not out against the Netherlands at Amstelveen in late May).

Thankfully, for the time being, his T20 international career average of 24.22 after 10 games looks somewhat steelier than his 27.62 from 42 appearances in the 50-overs version, which has his immediate future in that arena looking particularly tenuous on  paper.

And yet the last three days, it can hardly be denied, have been a real feather in his cap from a captaincy point of view.

I will say this much: if Du Plessis gets his act together in runs terms in the ODI format over the next few months, he may just begin to gently challenge De Villiers’s tenure as skipper in that environment.

But at the moment it’s a disturbingly big “if” ...

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing
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