Saving this Test 'little bit harder' than Adelaide - du Plessis
When Faf du Plessis batted seven hours and 46 minutes to save South Africa in the Adelaide Test, he was a man on debut who "thought it was possible" to bat for more than four sessions but actually "didn't believe I could". When he walked in with nine overs to go on the fourth evening against India at the Wanderers and a day of batting ahead of him, he "knew I could do it".
Experience can make all the difference.
Du Plessis has played eight Test matches between Adelaide and Johannesburg, has scored another hundred in that time, battled through a barren period that has included a trip to the UAE and has been elevated to South Africa's Twenty20 captaincy. With that has come understanding of what needs to be done when and how, and he applied that today.
He knew that even though this would require less time at the crease than in Adelaide from him, it would be tougher because of conditions. "This wicket was a little bit harder," he admitted. "In Adelaide, it was quite flat and there was not a lot of seam movement but I knew this was going to be a real challenge. There was consistent bounce outside off stump."
As he did then, he broke the task of eating the elephant into bites. This morning, he just wanted to bat time. When he was joined by AB de Villiers, his long-time school friend, they divided the time into mini-sessions. "The first challenge was to get to the new ball," he said. "Myself and AB wanted to get through that, so I was really pleased with the way we did that."
The pair batted for 13.2 overs before lunch and six after, before the second new ball arrived. In that time, their partnership was worth fifty and their only concern was to stay together. Run-scoring remained difficult, especially with India's seamers getting movement, and it was only after tea, when their stand had grown greater than 150, that they began to think a place in history was presenting itself.
"I started to think about the win when myself and AB started getting some momentum and were scoring four runs an over quite regularly," du Plessis said. "Our plan was to bat until the last 10 overs. From there, we'd try and get anything."
Those thoughts were scuppered when de Villiers played on in the third over of the last hour. "Then I just wanted to bat the innings through," du Plessis said. Nine balls later, JP Duminy was also out and du Plessis knew it all rested on him. "When JP got out, I knew I had to stay in because if I got out, we would be in trouble."
But at the other end, Vernon Philander ensured there was still a match to be won. "Vernon came in and made it closer. I just wanted to stay there. Until the last five overs, I just wanted to be there. I was very defensive, very tight."
But then, an error came. "Then I wanted to join the party," he said. "In hindsight, I should have hit that ball over his head for four." That ball is the one du Plesiss hit straight at Ajinkya Rahane and ran off. He was well short of his ground when the throw came in and knew the game was up.
As he crossed the boundary to leave and Dale Steyn entered the ring, du Plessis was "too exhausted" to say anything. "When you get out, your concentration levels just go out," he said. "I just went back to the changeroom and lay on my back and stared at the TV."
Not only had du Plessis spent more than a day batting, he had done a lot of it with the help of painkiller to numb his aching hand. "In between my thumb and index finger, the handle keeps jarring," he said. Du Plessis was hit at the end of 82nd over but said that was not the source of his pain. "There was a lot of bounce so every time the ball hit the splice, the handle jarred into my hand. After 300 or whatever balls, it hurt."
With pain on one side, du Plessis at least had satisfaction on the other. His century was the first time he has crossed fifty in nine innings and ended a lean patch that has also seen him dropped from the one-day squad. His match-saving efforts put his career back on track.
"I'm very satisfied that we pulled it through. This morning a lot of people wrote us off," he said. "I was really happy with the way I played, constructed my innings and left the ball."
He was also pleased with how he put a lid on his feelings as the innings went on. "I was very good until I got a 100. A lot of emotion comes through your body then." Du Plessis celebration after reaching the landmark was emphatic as he fist pumped multiple times and soaked in the warm applause, an indication of how much it meant to him.
"Over the last eight months, we played a lot of cricket in the subcontinent and a lot against Pakistan. They've got a really good attack. I was disappointed to be left out of the one-day squad but I can use this as a stepping stone to get back," he said. "It was also nice to go up the order. Jacques is not going to bowl 25 overs in every game where he needs a rest [before batting]. I enjoy going up the order. Hopefully I can get more opportunities."
Du Plessis batted at No. 4, in Kallis place because team management felt the allrounder needed an extra night's rest after bowling more than his usual quota of overs. In a position of such responsibility, du Plessis did his job and more by putting South Africa in a position from which they could win.
Although Graeme Smith said the decision to go for draw needed to be "appreciated" du Plessis expressed some sadness that South Africa did not win. "The position we got to, we'd have liked to win the game and be part of the best Test match ever," he said. "You always want to be the guy at the end that is the hero, but I couldn't do that today."
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent