Faf du Plessis happy to go slow
One-day batting strategies changed from shortened versions of a Test match approaches to longer versions of what would later become the T20 way through Sri Lanka in the 1990s. Their aggression made a score of around 90 runs in 15 overs seem commonplace. Today eight, nine and even ten runs an over is considered manageable, or as Zimbabwe's captain Elton Chigumbura has twice said, "easy to get with wickets in hand."
But there is one man who has rolled back the years on all of this: Faf du Plessis.
Of South Africa's current ODI batsman who have more than 1,000 ODI runs to their name, du Plessis' strike rate is the lowest. It sits at 82.83, which is not actually that low at all but less than AB de Villiers' 94.63 and Hashim Amla's 90. It's dipped even more the ongoing Zimbabwe series to 76.51, the lowest in the South African team but du Plessis is content with building stability and allowing the rest of his team to top-up the total.
"My role specifically for the No. 3 position is to anchor the innings, to be as solid as possible and to allow the other guys to play with freedom," du Plessis said. "If my role was to play with freedom then I would do that. But my role in this team at No. 3 is to try and stay there with those stroke-players."
In just two matches in that position, du Plessis had already done the stonewalling job successfully twice.
In the first ODI against Zimbabwe, he was only needed after 20 overs thanks to a century opening stand but when du Plessis arrived at the crease, conditions were getting tougher for batting. The ball had begun to spin and Zimbabwe's spinners were turning the screws. Du Plessis 59 came off 77 balls and included a period of 17 boundary-less overs but his go-slow created the platform for a final assault. South Africa took 101 runs off the last 10 overs to mount a match-winning total.
In the second match, the situation was more precarious. South Africa lost one of their openers in the eighth over and although conditions were less challenging, the opposition had their tails up. Even as du Plessis was settling in, both Quinton de Kock and AB de Villiers were dismissed leaving du Plessis with a repair job on his hands. With JP Duminy, he dragged South Africa through the next 11 overs in which they only found 39 runs and then pulled David Miller through another nine, that yielded just 38 runs. In the end, du Plessis' 55 off 72 balls was the joint top-score of the match and just about the difference between the two sides.
"The No. 3 position allows me to plan my game-plan, and it also suits the team," du Plessis said. "We've got some really exciting strokeplayers, and the No. 3 holds that position where you almost gel them together. With AB coming in at four and JP at five six, I can put that foundation for them."
So far neither de Villiers nor Duminy have been able to take full advantage of the firm ground du Plessis has put them on but he has vowed not to change his approach, irrespective of the series being won and the opposition demoralised. "It's very important that we don't focus on the opposition. We want to be No. 1 in the world. We've got very high standards for ourselves as a group and we understand that means we have to play as professionally as you can at all times," he said. "So we don't take Zimbabwe lightly at all."
He certainly has not and he has been rewarded for the earnestness with which he has approached his task. Du Plessis twin half-centuries have put him just 23 runs behind Hashim Amla in the series overall and with Amla being rested for the final game, du Plessis has the opportunity to over-take him. Be warned, it may take a while.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent