Faf comes out of AB's shadow
It's a tradition at CSA's annual awards dinner to sprinkle the nationally contracted players across a variety of tables, so they can mingle with the mere mortals. Last year Faf du Plessis was seated with the journalists.
The most memorable thing he had done in South African colours at that stage was run out AB de Villiers in the 2011 World Cup quarter-final in Dhaka. He was still a rookie, filled with the right mix of arrogance and mischief. He had just returned from his first season in the IPL, with the Chennai Super Kings - he had not played a game but had plenty of stories to tell, which quickly took attention off his World Cup drama. He spoke about being part of a winning squad, meeting R Ashwin and thinking he was one of the best spinners in the world, and about learning all the time.
He won one of the night's smaller prizes, a domestic award for MTN40 Player of the Year for his 567 runs in ten matches. When he got back to the table with it, he was received with handshakes and congratulations, and spent a large chunk of the rest of the evening staring at it, almost in disbelief that it belonged to him.
Not that du Plessis was a stranger to winning, having been part of the all-conquering Afrikaans Hoer Seunskool team that included AB de Villiers, Neil Wagner and Jacques Rudolph, and part of a Titans squad that had triumphed many times. It was that he was just not used to being personally heralded, having always had team-mates receive such accolades.
In particular, it was de Villiers' shadow that du Plessis had often found himself in. The pair are the same age, played in the same age-group sides, and seemed to be developing together, until de Villiers overtook du Plessis and became part of the national squad, leaving du Plessis to play franchise cricket. "It was a bit of an issue for me, for sure," du Plessis told ESPNcricinfo. "I wanted it just as badly - too badly, maybe."
For six years du Plessis watched de Villiers, somewhat enviously, and waited. Somewhere along the way he decided he had no choice but to keep performing in domestic cricket until he got noticed. "I said that I would grow in my own time. I took pressure off myself and thought that when I did get selected for South Africa, I would know my game. I would have played a lot of cricket and I would understand my game better, and that's exactly what happened," he said.
Du Plessis was picked for the ODI side in early 2011, having topped the rankings in the MTN40. "I got picked after having two or three great one-day seasons, so I understood what it took to do well in one-day cricket and I had that peace of mind there," he said.
Now he is part of the core of South Africa's revolving middle order. Du Plessis, de Villiers and JP Duminy share the No. 4 to 7 spots. It is a strategy that has puzzled some, but it has also worked, and du Plessis seems to have found his niche. "Gary [Kirsten] told us the reason we do it is because he wants us to become better players and be able to bat in every situation," du Plessis explained. "And it seems to be working. The opposition can't make set plans for us and they don't know what's coming next."
Being a certainty in the ODI side is a reflection of how dramatically things have changed for du Plessis in the past year. He has graduated from being a fringe player to one of those most talked-about by the national selectors, and is in line for other honours, such as a place in the T20 squad and perhaps even the Test one. Du Plessis believes the turnaround stemmed from being given greater opportunity, at all levels.
According to him, it started when the Titans underwent a change in management and appointed Matthew Maynard as head coach. "In the two years before that, I was batting at No. 6 or 7 in first-class cricket and I started losing interest a little bit," Du Plessis admitted. "When you bat in those positions, so often you find yourself batting with the tail in a couple of games and it can become frustrating. Matthew said he wanted me to bat at No. 4. I scored 157  in the first game, so that helped, but I also got more chances."
Du Plessis' international commitments meant he could only play four SuperSport Series matches, but he collected 599 runs from them, including three hundreds, which placed Test cricket in his sights. "A year ago maybe Test cricket was still out of my thinking but after the season I had, it's made it clear to me that Test cricket is something I would really like to play," he said.
Those longer-format ambitions are being nurtured by CSA, who have asked du Plessis to play in two unofficial Tests for South Africa A, against Sri Lanka A in June. Du Plessis sacrificed the opportunity to play for Somerset in the Friends Life t20 to play in the matches because he thought it would help with his future plans. "It's a big thing for your career if somebody wants to sign you as an overseas player because it means people are looking at you and its recognition for what you've done," he said. "But I also want to focus on my four-day cricket. The nicest thing is that I am not being labelled as just a one-day cricketer. I'd like to be next in line for that No. 6 spot in Tests."
Before that will happen, he could find himself opening the batting with Richard Levi in South Africa's Twenty20 side. Andrew Hudson, the national convenor of selectors, said du Plessis has made a strong case for himself with his batting in the IPL, and the man himself confessed he would be delighted if given the chance. "If you ask me where I'd want to bat in T20 format, I'd say I'd want to open. I think my batting is really suited for that."
Batting at the top of the order happened to du Plessis as a matter of accommodation, because there was nowhere else he would fit in the Chennai Super Kings starting XI. "We probably have the best of the Indian batters in our team, with [Suresh] Raina and Badrinath, and then you've got your allrounders like Albie [Morkel] and Dwayne Bravo, so to get in was always going to be tough to slot it," du Plessis explained. "Stephen Fleming told me that because Mike Hussey was not going to be here for the first part of the tournament, I should open, and he really pushed it."
Having done the job a few times in emergency situations for the Titans, it was not a completely new thing for du Plessis but he still had a few adjustments to make. Fleming told him the team wanted to make use of his dual abilities to hit the ball over the inner ring and along the ground and his main role would be to provide aggressive starts. "It's completely the opposite role I have with the Titans, where I am the guy who comes in at No. 4 four and tries to bat through," du Plessis said. "Now I am one of the guys who can make a play at the beginning, and if I can get through the first six then I go back to trying to stay there for as long as possible. The more I played, the more I started understanding when was a good time to go and when was a good time to try and sit back."
Being part of a unit that has established itself as one of the most settled in the IPL has also helped. Du Plessis had benefitted from different brands of leadership, in Fleming and MS Dhoni. "Fleming plays a huge role - he is a really relaxed guy. That's something all cricketers enjoy," he said. "MS is very chilled. He is quite a quiet guy and he doesn't say much. He just gets on, does his business and never panics. Overall we're a very well balanced squad - that's important to the owners, I think. They buy players that are not trouble-makers, in terms of their attitudes. So you get a bunch of guys where their main objective is the team."
That philosophy is something du Plessis understands, having always been taught the importance of collective achievement over personal successes. Du Plessis is, in essence, a team man. When he played at Lancashire, he became a poster boy for fielding but far from dwelling on the standard he set there, he heaped praise on the county for teaching him more about his game. He has done the same with the Super Kings and has embraced Chennai, for better and for worse.
"I'll be honest - Chennai is like putting your head into an oven and turning it to 200 degrees and baking yourself," he said. "It's really, really warm. All the teams that play against us talk about the heat and humidity during the build-up because it's such a huge factor. It feels like I lose ten litres every game just from sweat. But the IPL is a fantastic tournament. We meet people from different countries and cultures, and even though we play a lot of cricket, and it has felt long, there's so much room to develop and improve."
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent