Durban – Life is a bowl of cherries right now for Faf du Plessis. In the last two months he has scored a Test century on debut, played a heroic role in a series win in Australia, become captain of a national team and got engaged to his long-time girlfriend Imari Visser.
But the 28-year-old Titan, who will lead South Africa’s T20 team which begins a three-match series against New Zealand at Kingsmead on Friday (6pm), is taking nothing for granted.
“I’m very grateful for the last couple of months, it’s been really good, but I also know that I’ve got to keep my feet on the ground because things can change very quickly. I’m still practising very hard, making sure I tick all the boxes, and hopefully the good form can continue.”
Du Plessis, who has taken over the captaincy of the team from his good friend AB de Villiers, said he had enjoyed the last few days in which he had begun the process of bonding his young, inexperienced team together.
“It’s gone very well. The last two practices feel like they’ve been the hardest in my career. It’s a nice young squad, and with youth comes a lot of energy.”
Du Plessis said he rated the Kiwis highly, adding that there was no question of his team being complacent.
In the World Cup in India last year, he personally suffered from the Black Caps’ ferocious competitiveness after he ran out De Villiers in his team’s shock quarter-final loss.
Immediately afterwards, New Zealand’s 12th man, Kyle Mills, bellowed in Du Plessis’s ear that he had lost the match for his team and De Villiers had to interrupt his return to the dressing-room to haul his friend away from a threatening ruck of Kiwi players.
The South Africa captain acknowledged that incident when he joked: “Boxing gloves, round two this time! I’ve learnt from those experiences and I know what to expect from New Zealand; that’s the way they play their cricket. If you speak to them they’ll openly say they want to make sure they’re up for the battle and that they’ll be in your face. Luckily I know what to expect now, and I can share my knowledge with the younger guys so they won’t get a shock.”
He also emphasised that there was little between the two teams, with both having match-winners as well as a number of young, inexperienced players.
The Kiwis have five players who could make their international debuts tonight, while South Africa have four.
“That’s the nice thing about playing international cricket, because the young guys will get thrown into situations where there’s more pressure than they’ve ever handled before. That’s the only way they’ll gain experience.”
Earlier, New Zealand captain Brendon McCullum swallowed his disappointment over yesterday’s news that his most potent fast bowler, Tim Southee, had been ruled out of the Test and ODI series after he ruptured a thumb ligament in a domestic match.
Southee had already been ruled out of the T20 series because his wife is giving birth.
McCullum, who is New Zealand’s most explosive batsman and one of the main obstacles to South Africa’s victory hopes, said he had been pleased by his squad’s preparation for today’s match.
“There’s a high level of excitement in the group. We’ve prepared pretty well, particularly with a really good warm-up match in Pietermaritzburg this week (where they beat South Africa “A” by 24 runs) in which we got to try out some new combinations.”
McCullum said the key to his team’s win was the three early wickets taken by left-arm pace bowler Mitchell McClenaghan, who almost certainly bowled himself into making his international debut today.
“I was pleased with the way Mitchell bowled when he knocked over a pretty good top order. That enabled our spinners to get into action pretty early and they dried up the runs, and the fielders really maintained the pressure. That’s pretty much the ideal blueprint for a T20 game.”
The captain said he was pleased with the blend of youth and experience in the squad, and he felt confident that, whatever the conditions, he had the right combinations available.
“The pitch looks a bit dry, so it may be closer to the conditions we had in Pietermaritzburg. If that’s the case, then we have the spinners and bowlers who take the pace off the ball. But if the pitch rolls out quicker and bouncier, then we’ve got tactics for that as well.”
McCullum said he realised that today’s match would be a big step up from Tuesday’s win, and the return of a few first-choice players – opener Martin Guptill and pace bowler Doug Bracewell will be favoured to play – would strengthen the team.
“T20 is a bit of an unknown, but I’m confident we’ve got the right combination of batsmen to put up a competitive total, and the same goes for the bowlers to put South Africa under pressure.” – The Mercury