'Everything inside me didn't want to give it away'
Faf du Plessis was 21 when Nottinghamshire offered him a Kolpak deal with a conditional clause that said he would have to qualify for England if he accepted. He refused. Seven years later he understands the significance of turning down that offer.
By the time tea was taken on the last day of the Adelaide Test in 2012, du Plessis had been batting for almost six hours. His head was swirling with the Australians' sledging, he was cramping, and his back ached. "I asked the physiotherapist for some pain tablets and AB de Villiers came to me and said, 'Keep fighting because you don't understand how much this means for the people back home. If you get through this, your career will be changed.' That made me make sure I didn't give it away."
For the rest of the day he battled through more of the same. When he finished, Graeme Smith thanked him for giving the country a chance at a second successive series win in Australia. "Faf played a massive part in bringing us to Perth level in the series," Smith said. To be held up as a country's hero left du Plessis "happy and so humbled". And now he wants more of it.
That it may not have turned out this way only makes it sweeter. Before county cricket threatened to take him away from South African cricket, rugby did. "My dad was a professional rugby player. He played centre for Northern Transvaal in the 1980s with Naas Botha [former Springbok flyhalf], and I always felt that my dad preferred me playing rugby to cricket.
"In primary school I played rugby at the time before shoulder pads, and I used to like kicking and running with the ball. But I wasn't a massive fan of tackling and my dad drilled tackling into me. I got my first pair of shoulder pads in standard six and I just started to love tackling, and the fear of breaking bones went away. But I was always better at cricket.
"When I was 16, I decided I wanted to play cricket and not rugby, but I still played a bit of rugby in my final school year. I broke my wrist that season and I missed two months of cricket season and I told myself that was exactly why I shouldn't have been playing rugby."
His parents pushed him to pursue his studies. Du Plessis' best friend, de Villiers, also a budding cricketer, had registered for a degree in sports science, so du Plessis grudgingly agreed to do the same. "I thought I would tag along and I went to the university, but that day there was a queue, so I just decided I didn't want to do it," du Plessis said. "Three months later, AB also stopped studying because he said it was a waste of time. We both wanted to play cricket full time."
As they progressed through the cricket levels, de Villiers always remained ahead of du Plessis. He got a contract at Northerns and a fast-track into the national team, while du Plessis had to find a way to make a living playing club cricket overseas.
"I started at Liverpool Cricket Club and then moved to the Nottingham league. Greg Smith, who also played for the Titans, played for the main Notts side, and he managed to arrange a second-team game for me. I scored 200 in my first game for them.
"In the next three games I got three hundreds in a row and that's when Kolpak came up. Notts offered me a three-year contract but they wanted me to qualify for England. For every Kolpak player they paid penalties, and so I had a serious decision to make. I was 21 and I was playing a little bit here and there but not permanently for the Titans. Notts were offering eight or ten times more than I was earning at home."
In his heart, he wanted to stay home. "I just had this burning desire inside me to play for South Africa and I was too young to just give it up. As a job, you want to make as much money as possible. But I thought I wouldn't do it at the time, it didn't feel right. Richard Pybus said to me that I would be stupid to go." So du Plessis didn't go.
Although a strong performer for the Titans in the shorter format, he wasn't close to national selection when another county came knocking. "I got an opportunity for Lancashire. They offered me a better deal, because they said we don't want you to qualify [for England]. They just offered me a contract and I thought it would be the perfect thing for me at the time, because then I would play six months professional cricket in England, six months in South Africa, and I did that for two years, during which I gained a lot of experience."
By 2010, when Kolpak rules changed, du Plessis was a Titans heavyweight and in the selectors' eye. He had played in A sides and made his South Africa debut less than a year later, in an ODI series against India. His advice to young South African cricketers is to do what he did: to go play overseas for personal development.
"Go there and play. You are on your own, away from family and friends. You have to deal with life on your own. You're not living in your parents' house. I learned everything there: ironing, washing and buying groceries and cooking food."
In fact, he became a keen cook. "I got into Jamie Oliver quite a bit. I don't like Greek food but I cook everything else. I'm quite a healthy eater and so I cook stuff along those lines and I do a lot of experimenting on different vegetable and meat dishes."
Du Plessis is the designated cook when his friends meet up, and has promised to give de Villiers some kitchen tips, "especially now that he is engaged". For du Plessis too, marriage is not far away. "As a guy, you always breathe a little heavier when someone says you are going to get married, but I can now say that it's around the corner," he said.
His girlfriend, Imari Visser, has now quit her job as a marketing manager to travel the world with him. "The plan is for her to do some more studying and do her honours, and when the day comes that she needs to work again or when I stop travelling as much, then she can just get straight back into it," du Plessis said.
Visser travelled to Australia but booked a trip to Melbourne to visit her brother during the Adelaide Test, so she missed the innings that announced du Plessis to the cricketing world.
After a solid 78 in the first innings, few expected more from du Plessis. When he walked out for the second innings, South Africa were staring at defeat. But his best friend was at the other end.
"Four sessions felt like a really long time so we said, 'Let's try and get to drinks.' And then when we got there, we said, 'Let's get to the end of play.' If you break it down to an hour, it helps." They had to dig even deeper on day five and du Plessis relied on de Villiers' experience to keep going. "I remember asking AB to keep me positive, because we were playing so defensively it's easy to creep into your shell and get a bit lazy. I asked him to talk to me every second or third ball."
Twice du Plessis was given out. Both times he reviewed the decisions; both times he made the right call. "It's quite nerve-wracking waiting for the decision but I was confident that I wasn't out," he said.
Batting got easier as the day went on, although du Plessis struggled a bit with the balls that spun after landing in the rough. "If someone like Shane Warne was playing, it would have been impossible, because there was a big rough."
With 70 minutes to go to save the Test, and only the tail for company, du Plessis had to not only manage the discomfort of his cramp but also keep most of the strike. "Mentally I was in such a place where everything inside me didn't want to give it away. I said to the guys coming in, if they want to bowl short to you, just take it. If they hit you in the neck or the face, it doesn't matter. We should just make it really tough for them to get us out." Along with Morne Morkel, du Plessis ensured South Africa didn't concede a series lead.
Du Plessis hopes the good times will keep coming. "I've played enough cricket now to know that when you are riding the wave with runs you've got to make sure you get as much as possible. That's my biggest driving factor now. I want to score as much as I can, and if it lasts me another two games or two years that's something the best batsmen in the world do. They keep scoring big runs. And to try to do that for South Africa is even a bigger motivation."
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent