Du Plessis schooled in success
When Faf du Plessis makes his Test debut - and it does seem to be a when rather than an if - he will be the fifth graduate of Afrikaanse Hoër Seunskool (Affies) currently playing international cricket. AB de Villiers and Jacques Rudolph are two of the others while New Zealand's Kruger van Wyk and Neil Wagner make up the remaining contingent.
Add that to the six national rugby players they have produced, triple Australian Open tennis winner, Johan Kriek, five participants at last year's World Junior Athletics Championship and the boy's institution is comfortably one of the best sporting breeding grounds in the country. Apart from discipline and quality coaching, no-one seems to be able to pinpoint exactly why they have been that good, not even Du Plessis.
"It must be something in the koshuispap [boarding school food]," Du Plessis said with a shrug and a laugh. "I don't really know though, I guess something must just be going right.
"From a cricketing perspective, we were just a very good side. I guess it was one of those times when you are lucky enough to have that. I suppose they took their sport really seriously as well. Maybe I took it too seriously and didn't take my academics seriously enough. Also, because it's a boys' school, you really get in tight."
Du Plessis was part of a first team that also included first-class regulars Heino Kuhn, the wicketkeeper-batsmen who has played for South Africa in T20s, and Johann Myburgh, the opening batsman who moved to New Zealand. They only lost a handful of times in the period they played together and became known for their promise. That almost all of them have achieved at higher levels is testament to the excellence of their grounding.
De Villiers was the one earmarked for success early on and fast-tracked through the domestic set-up before making his international debut at the age of 20. Du Plessis, who was De Villiers' closest compatriot, always lagged a little behind, although many will argue that he is just as talented. He spent more time in the franchise set-up, a few seasons at Lancashire, where his fielding became the stuff of legend, and was eventually picked in the ODI side where he was reunited with De Villiers.
Now, Du Plessis has joined De Villiers in another national set-up - the Test squad - something he always wanted for himself, but was never in a position to challenge for until recently. Du Plessis was seen as a smash and grab cricketer until Matthew Maynard allowed him the opportunity to bat higher up the Titans order. There, he scored 599 runs in four matches, including three hundreds and spent a markedly longer time at the crease than ever before.
With similar leadership skill to De Villiers, Du Plessis was named South Africa A captain and he performed well for them in an unofficial Test series against Sri Lanka A where he also made a century. With South Africa's Test No.6 batting position the only one that is still up for debate, because Rudolph has yet to record a significant innings there, Du Plessis threw his name into the hat with those performances.
He was rewarded with a call-up as cover for Albie Morkel who injured his ankle before the second Test after himself being a replacement for Marchant de Lange. The South Africa squad went from a lanky fast bowler to a bombastic allrounder to a batsman who bowls some legspin, but that will not bother Du Plessis, who ultimately benefitted.
"I was in bed, it was 7:30 in the morning and I was preparing to fly to Ireland with the A side the next day when Andrew Hudson phoned me and told me I had been picked," Du Plessis said. "I was shocked. The Test team was already selected and you don't hope for someone to get injured. But, in the last 12 months, I've put in a lot of hard work."
Du Plessis is unlikely to feature in the starting XI on this tour but will get a chance to prove himself in the final warm-up match against Derby over the next two days. He understands that it is "another opportunity to make sure I've keep doing the good things I have been doing."
Already, he has had some time to show off his fielding skills when he subbed for Alviro Petersen in the second Test at Headingley. Petersen sustained a grade one strain to the right hamstring during his eight hour, 53 minute stint making 182 and needed a substitute for the full duration of England's two innings.
It allowed Du Plessis to play a part in on-field activities despite being a fringe player. "It's nice to be involved," he said. "Before I made my debut for the ODI side, I did two matches on the side. I don't mind sitting on the side and learning. I like to field as well, so that's my contribution."
South Africa's new management team, under Gary Kirsten, have been careful to make sure all the players in the squad are included in match-day activities, but Du Plessis has been able to do a little more than most. While Robin Peterson, Lonwabo Tsotsobe and Thami Tsolekile have taken it in turns to carry drinks, towels and messages and have occasionally fielded, Du Plessis was part of the group that came under attack from Kevin Pietersen's blitzkrieg.
"It was one of the better innings I've watched. It can completely take the game away," he said. "Luckily, I didn't have to bowl to him." Although he didn't, he was part of the think tank that tried to stop Pietersen and being with the on-field XI during periods of strategising, gave Du Plessis the opportunity get a much closer look at how the Test side operates.
"It was a really intense serious vibe. You can see the guys are really geared up," he said "I'm part of the one-day side and that's cricket all about energy but here, you can see its proper cricket." As proper, perhaps, as the kind of the cricket he would have played at Affies.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent