Faf celebrated in the land he denied
Ever seen a movie that makes you squirm? A movie so transparently demanding of all its characters and so utterly compelling for all its viewers that you move from cheek to cheek in your seat, so uncomfortable that you cannot decide which is better, to watch or not to watch. If you have, you now have a feel for the last session of the Adelaide Test.
Australia did not deserve not to win. South Africa did not deserve to lose. Cricket has the answer. Play for five long days and finish without a result. Insane but we love it. And all because of a fellow called Faf - the darnedest, least likely name of a sporting hero I ever heard. Oh for a Viv, a Seb or a Seve; a Sachin, a Tiger or the Fed (Kevin is not good by the way, but KP sort of works). But Faf it is, out of Pretoria and now having pins stuck in his doll down under. Faf du Plessis did anything but faff.
The Faf facts are, he batted for seven hours and 46 minutes, in mainly 34 degrees of heat and high humidity, with five different partners, one of whom could barely run, to defy a voracious Australian attack and save a crucial match for his beloved country. This was a monumental effort, performed on debut and already written into the folklore of South African cricket: Barry Richards and Graeme Pollock against Australia in Durban, 1970; Kepler Wessels' men at Lord's, 1994; Faf du Plessis against Australia in Adelaide, 2012.
This writer did not even know du Plessis had been picked for the tour. Muppet. Waffling away on these pages three weeks ago, he said "Graeme Smith's No. 1-ranked team comes without the usual bench strength... there is no specialist batsman in reserve." Big mistake, huge. Better research next time. Du Plessis is bench strength writ large. He is energy and honesty and reliability. He is neither the most gifted nor the least, but is a good bloke, uncomplaining and popular. Indeed, he defines bench strength. Behind every good team is a good bench.
Of the 376 balls faced by the most talked about man in South Africa this week, no more than a dozen caused a problem. Both the Adelaide pitch and the Decision Review System were his friends. AB de Villiers and Jacques Kallis were brothers in arms and equally impressive, if not impregnable. By playing forward and back, not from the crease, and by showing the maker's name to bowlers who threw their Australian souls at him, a proud Afrikaner allowed South Africa the luxury of arriving in Perth without a deficit.
This had not seemed possible at any time in the match, bar those long forgotten first-morning punches by Kallis, the bowler. Mesmerised by late swing both Ed Cowan and Ricky Ponting perished ingloriously. Three down for not many so soon after winning the toss, Australia looked once more to Michael Clarke, a man whose stock has risen more remarkably than the Dow Jones through the last years of the 20th century. Seeing Kallis limp from the fight, Clarke responded with punches of his own - drives and pulls that took him to the top of the world rankings and his team to 482 in the 86.5 overs bowled by the close of play.
Inside three days, in different parts of the world and on very different pitches, two men who once wore skunk hairdos and now settle for tattoos and a hint of jewellery as their rebellion, played innings that rank among the best in history. Modern men gracing an age-old game that people think will soon pass. It will not. Not if the Test matches in Mumbai and Adelaide are an indication. One team - England - staging the greatest comeback since, well since Sunday, when the Stones wreaked their havoc at the O2 arena in London. The other - South Africa - the greatest escape since Lord Lucan. These matches are proof of the sport, they are the reason we live it and love it and must continue to campaign for its pre-eminence. If Test cricket goes, a piece of us goes with it. The piece that is patience, manners and respect; the piece that is without commerce at its core.
By Monday - five days after the 482 festival on Thursday of the previous week, but in the same match - a mere 169 runs were scored in six hours play. Work that out and explain it to a Spaniard. Yet every ball had meaning and drama. Australia needed just six balls to go right but only four finished in their favour. Think of it: more than 540 deliveries by six different protagonists and only six had to work out as Clarke and Co wished. But they did not and we will talk of it forever. Watson and Bailey; McKay and Kline; Anderson and Panesar; du Plessis and Morkel - the two Afrikaners who join the list of cricket's most brilliant escapologists.
So pure and old hat was this Test match that one yearned for the pre-hard-hat days, those days without helmets, when the eyes and expressions of the cricketers drove our fancy. Those days before the DRS, when the umpires took our spleen, and technology was a slip-catch cradle that provided hours of fun and hands turned black and blue. There was something of the past in du Plessis' modesty. His clothes were neat, his kit uncluttered, his hair, when that helmet came off for air, short and side-parted. He played forward defensives as if brought up in Barnsley, and his celebration of a hundred was near apologetic: "Oops, sorry for momentary lapse into self-indulgence," he seemed to say, "I've a job to finish here."
And all this from a man whose best known previous is in T20. Look him up, been around a bit. Francois du Plessis: 141 List A or 75 T20s, 79 first-class. Played all over the place - Chennai, London, Manchester, and Melbourne soon apparently. Not till last season was he a regular pick for Northerns or Titans - the old Northern Transvaal - in first-class cricket. This is a riches to relevance story. T20 then Tests - one buys the shoes, the other books a slot in the history books.
All over town, people are talking about it. Baristas and barristers; doctors and nurses; the bloke at the gym, the one at the laundry, the eco-friendly folk upstairs who don't usually have cricket on their lips, the mate who played footie for Australia, the restaurateur, the providore. There, that's the sort of day I've had. No faffing from me, and none from him either. It is high praise to be celebrated in the land you denied.
Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK