Perth, Australi – Faf du Plessis is a person of many parts, some of them a little surprising considering that he’s now one of the main “manne” in the Proteas Test team after his famous rearguard action to hold the frothing Aussies at bay at the Adelaide Oval on Monday.
If you’re one of his good mates in his home town of Pretoria, you’d be likely to get an invitation for a home-cooked three-course meal washed down by a couple of bottles of good red wine for a “mature” evening out, and if you saw him in the street, he’d as likely as not have a shopping bag in his hand as he looks for fresh ingredients.
But right now, 28-year-old Du Plessis is a cricketing hero back home after his extraordinary unbeaten century in the South African second innings that helped earn the draw that keeps their hopes of winning the series alive.
It’s worth pausing a moment to appreciate just how long he batted in the match. Taking his first innings of 78 and his second innings of 110* together, Du Plessis batted for a total of 11 hours and 10 minutes, facing the equivalent of 89 overs, which is batting through an entire day’s quota of overs by himself.
Asked how he planned his defensive masterpiece in the second innings, he said: “I had a chat with Gary Kirsten [who knows a thing or two about what’s required in these circumstances having batted for more than 14 and a half hours for 275 to save a Test against England in 1999] and I asked him about maybe putting some pressure on off-spinner [Nathan Lyon], using my feet to him. Gary just said: ‘Keep to your gameplan but take out all the risk’.”
Du Plessis talked about the pressures of batting against the vocal Aussies, taking his innings “hour by hour” and being helped by his partners, AB de Villiers and Jacques Kallis. He wouldn’t talk much about the Aussie sledging, except to say that they were in his ear the whole day. “What really surprised me was that they kept having a go at Jacques. He’s the most chilled out guy in the world and nothing bothers him – you’re really wasting your breath going at him! It just showed how desperate they were to try and break our concentration.”
Referring to the one chance he gave, an edge off Ben Hilfenhaus in the over before tea on the final day, Du Plessis quipped: “I guess [Matt] Wade was focusing too much on the verbals to catch the ball. He was really giving a lot.”
As to the conditions, Du Plessis said the pitch lasted well, but he had the honesty to add that if Shane Warne had been playing, it would have been “impossible” to survive because of the big area of rough on the pitch.
One player in the Australian team who has Du Plessis’ unqualified respect is “Mr Cricket”, Mike Hussey, a teammate of his for the Chennai Super Kings in the Indian Premier League.
“He was the one guy in the Aussie side who never said a word to me during my innings. I’ve got so much respect for him and the way he plays his cricket. Both times he got a hundred in the series, I shook his hand and said ‘great knock’. And he gave me a vintage bottle of wine to congratulate me before I made my debut, a great gesture. It just shows where cricket’s going these days when you play with guys of other nationalities all over the world.
“At Chennai we compete for spots in the batting line-up, and he was just the same nice guy towards me when I played ahead of him. He truly wanted me to do well. That’s the way you judge a person’s true character.”
Du Plessis said he had been “humbled” to receive so many messages after his innings, many from people who didn’t know him. “When I was struggling with my back during the tea break on the last day, AB came to me and said: ‘Keep fighting, because you don’t understand how much this means to people back home. If you get through this your career will be changed.’ What he said made a big impression and helped me to knuckle down again and not to give it away.”
Du Plessis is aware of how he got into the team, and how the circumstances echoed down the years to 2008 when JP Duminy was given the opportunity to score a debut 50 and a match-winning century at Melbourne to clinch a history-making series.
This time, of course, it was Duminy who got injured, giving Du Plessis his chance. “I was genuinely happy to just be in the squad and to carry the drinks. I’m a big believer that you’ve got to earn your stripes in order to play. JP had been hitting the ball so beautifully in the nets and I remember saying to him that he was going to have a great series … I was really gutted for him.
“It was Hashim [Amla] who told me about JP. He just said, ‘are you ready? That’s how JP got his chance and remember how he took it.’ I thought about that during my innings.”
Looking at the third Test, Du Plessis said his focus wouldn’t drop: “When you’re riding the wave with runs, you’ve got to make sure you make as many as possible. That’s what all the top batsmen do. Whether it lasts for another two matches or two years, that’s my big drive, to try to cash in.”
Despite his father, Francois, being a Currie Cup rugby centre with Northern Transvaal in the 1980s, there was never a danger that Du Plessis would be lost to rugby. “Dad obviously preferred me playing rugby to cricket, but when I went to Affies, AB and I played in the first cricket team in Standard 7, while I only played rugby in my age group. I only realised how truly important cricket was to me when I broke my wrist playing rugby in matric and had to miss two months of the cricket season.”
Since the age of 16, Du Plessis was resolved to make cricket his career, a prospect his parents didn’t warm to initially. “There was a moment when I tried to enrol to study sports science, but the queue was so long that I eventually walked away.”
Du Plessis quickly broke into the Titans ranks but he really did his apprenticeship – in cricket and in life – playing Lancashire League cricket in England as well as playing for counties Nottinghamshire and Lancashire.
Throughout all this period, with the temptation of big-money Kolpak contracts to play out of South Africa, was the burning feeling that he wanted to play for his country. That feeling never left him and it informed all his biggest decisions. After a great season for the Titans in 2008, he eventually broke into the ODI team and the rest, as they say, is history.
He said he would always be grateful for his period in England where he learned to live by himself and do his own washing and ironing and cooking. “I got hold of some Jamie Oliver books and recipes and it developed from there.”
He started by making pastas “because they’re easy” but now he’s graduated to less carb-friendly meals, experimenting with veggie and meat dishes now. “When I’m home in Pretoria, which is rare these days, I long to get away from restaurant food and make something at home. So I invite my friends for a three-course meal with a couple of bottles of red wine. I always end up doing the cooking because they’re too lazy. I give AB stick about that, but now that he’s engaged, he promises me he’s going to start taking cooking seriously …”
Du Plessis is also on the brink of settling down with his long-time girlfriend, marketing executive Imari Visser. “When you’re a young man of 21 you start breathing heavily when you hear talk of marriage, but Imari and I have been together for seven years and I guess it’s around the corner now, it’s very close.”
Name: Francois ‘Faf’ du Plessis
Born: Pretoria 1984
Education: Affies Boys School, Pretoria
Main teams: South Africa, Titans, Lancashire, Chennai Super Kings, South Africa A, South Africa U19
Bowling style: Leg-break
First-class: 4593 runs in 79 matches at 39.59