No nerves for du Plessis
When Faf du Plessis scored his first runs in Test cricket with a crisply energetic drive through midwicket, he did not look anything like a man who was on the verge of being timed out a few seconds earlier.
"I had an absolute shocker going down the stairs. My boot clipped one of the stairs and my whole foot came out. I had to kneel in front of the whole crowd while they were abusing me from both sides. My shoelaces were tied and my pad was in the way and I couldn't get my foot back in. I was thinking I was going to get timed here," he said later.
His anxiety only deepened as he tried to negotiate getting his boot back on. "My foot slipped three-quarters of the way down and I thought I would have to run on like that and sort it out when I get there. Then my first step forward hit another step and I almost tripped. When I got on the field I thought it can't go worse than that."
He was right. It went much better. Two balls later, he sent a low full toss to the boundary. The ball deserved it but to see du Plessis time it with such confidence and poise was a small sign that even if he couldn't take steps down, he was on his way to taking one up.
For the rest of South Africa's time at the crease, du Plessis showed class and composure in a tough situation. Soon after he had arrived, South Africa were in trouble. AB de Villiers had been dismissed, Jacques Kallis was not ready to bat and the lower order was exposed. With that pressure on his shoulders, du Plessis did not look tentative and showed why he said as early as last week that he was ready for Test cricket.
He knew, when he took over JP Duminy's role at No. 7, that he would have to be a bridge between the top-order batsmen and the rest, something he had done for Titans before he was moved up the order last season. It would require a fine balance between protecting the vulnerable and adding enough to the total.
For the first period, he concentrated only on the former. "I knew it was just for me to hang around with the tail," he said. "For us it was just a case of being in the middle, it didn't really matter about the runs, we had to occupy the crease."
A nervy ten overs could have du Plessis thinking he wouldn't be able to manage that. Dale Steyn and Rory Kleinveldt did not prove able partners, though du Plessis looked capable of holding his own. Panic could so easily have set in and a few edges hinted at it, but largely, it stayed away.
The sight of Kallis walking in at No. 9 almost shunned it because du Plessis knew he would have the opportunity to build a reasonable stand. "When Jacques came in the nice thing for me was to have his experience. I had a few questions that I threw his way and he was really good about helping me," du Plessis said.
Still, it would be the kind of partnership that would require a completely different gameplan for him. Kallis' injury meant he was inhibited in running between the wickets. Du Plessis is the kind of batsman who would tire most partners and always looks for snappy singles which he then tries to turn into twos. Today, he had to rein that instinct in. In the 40 minutes before lunch, du Plessis and Kallis ran only four singles and Kallis sent du Plessis back three times. Overall, 17% of their 93-run stand came in singles.
"I couldn't just get singles because I really thought of his injury," du Plessis explained. "It felt like we would either have to get a dot ball or a boundary but after a couple of overs, we settled in and got used to it. It was actually quite nice, because we could just stroll through the wickets. Usually I am always trying to sprint."
He was particularly impressive on the drive, but what could prove most significant about this du Plessis innings was a display of temperament. When Kallis departed, when he was hit on the hand by Siddle, when he was dropped at mid-wicket, he fought it out and rode his luck. When he could sense that the end of the innings was near, and there was only one wicket left, he launched a few to get South Africa as close as he could.
His was an innings that stood in stark contrast to the one of Jacques Rudolph's earlier. Though Rudolph had taken South Africa to safety on the second evening, he did not last too long on the third morning.
Rudolph showed a distinct lack of awareness when he drove Nathan Lyon three times in three overs, twice at great risk. The first time, he moved well to the pitch of the ball and got a four through extra cover. The second time he survived hitting it in the air. The third time, he didn't. That made it the sixth time in the last seven innings that Rudolph has been dismissed by an offspinner, a worrying trend.
With AB de Villiers yet to make a meaningful contribution with the bat as he continues to don the wicket-keeping gloves , South Africa look a little suspect beyond their top four in the line-up. The sensible tactic would be to relieve de Villiers of the extra burden, bring in a specialist keeper and revert back to a six batsmen strategy. At the moment, they only have five in form although they are fielding seven.
Although Kallis' injury could delay such a change, it seems inevitable that it will happen. When that day comes, it will mean one of Rudolph or du Plessis may have to go. After the first innings in Adelaide, it seems clear which one that should be.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent