Deivarayan Muthu is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo
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The Kolkata Knight Riders are bowling to the Chennai Super Kings. Mystery spinner Varun Chakravarthy flicks out a carrom ball in the powerplay. It's only fractionally short and wide, but Faf du Plessis rocks into a back-foot cut, bringing his fast hands into play and scything it away past the right of Andre Russell at backward point for four.
Then, in the 19th over of the Super Kings' innings, Pat Cummins bangs a hard-length offcutter wide of off. The Australia seamer does well to cut his pace down to 123kph and take it away from du Plessis' swinging arc. However, the batter makes it look worse than pineapple on pizza by pumping it in the air to the left of extra-cover and right of wide long-off for six. du Plessis' weight is on the back foot, but the hands - and the front shoulder - generate all the power. Even Russell, among the elite T20 hitters, is amused.
du Plessis isn't bracketed with those hitters, but he does the job by piercing the gaps in the infield and hitting over the top. Speaking to his former opening partner at the Super Kings and good friend Shane Watson on the T20 Stars podcast last year, du Plessis revealed that almost every coach tried to push him away from his usual technique, saying his hands were too far from his body. During his first season at the Super Kings in 2011, even Steve Rixon pointed out the same, telling du Plessis he'd "struggle to hit through the off side".
"Oh! It's actually one of my strengths is to hit through the off side," du Plessis had responded back in the day. "For me, it's possible. I've found a way over the years to work with what I've got in my technique to get the best out of technique. To change it - and to be like someone else - would've been the wrong this for me to do. I think the coaching manual is becoming less and less important. It's about seeing what someone has and working with that to maximise in their own unique way."
The "hands-only" technique has had du Plessis nicking off in Test cricket, where the red ball swings for extended periods, but in limited-overs cricket, where the white ball doesn't do so for as long, he has found a way to use it to up the ante. He isn't just fluent on the off side, but can also access the "V" in front of and behind the wicket. Also, when he's batting at the top, he often dashes out of the crease or away from leg stump to mess with the lines and lengths of bowlers. All of this was on display during his unbeaten 95 off 60 balls against the Knight Riders at the Wankhede Stadium.
Thirty of those runs were rattled off in the powerplay, a phase in which the Super Kings struggled last season. In isolation, du Plessis had adapted well to the UAE conditions in the powerplay in IPL 2020, but lacked enough support from those batting behind him. The addition of a similarly free-flowing Moeen Ali and the return of Suresh Raina this season has allowed du Plessis to bat with greater freedom at the top. Plus, the Super Kings have two other big-hitting left-handers in Sam Curran and Ravindra Jadeja to close out the innings.
Sure, the Super Kings bat all the way down to No. 11 now, but they couldn't utilise their depth in their season-opener against the Delhi Capitals. Then, in a slim chase against the Punjab Kings, CSK needed only a subdued effort from du Plessis (36 off 33 balls). Against the Rajasthan Royals, du Plessis provided his side a faster start with 33 off 17 balls and set them up for 200. But Dhoni and Raina couldn't sustain the momentum as they ended up with 188 for 9. Then, against the Knight Riders, du Plessis batted through the innings, showing off his gears and embodying the Super Kings' bold approach.
Since the start of IPL 2020, du Plessis has struck at 139.26 in the powerplay, averaging 33.25. Among batters who have faced at least 50 balls during this phase, only Suryakumar Yadav (150.37), Manish Pandey (144.75) and Ben Stokes (139.37) have had a better strike rate than du Plessis in the first six overs. In all, he has faced 191 balls in the powerplay since the start of the last season, and, according to data logged by ESPNcricinfo's scorers, he has been defensive against only 21 of those.
du Plessis' hands have given the Super Kings a big leg-up, so much so that their coach Stephen Fleming believes that they've already exceeded early expectations at the Wankhede Stadium. The Super Kings, though, need supporting hands if they are to re-establish themselves as bona fide title contenders. On Sunday afternoon, they run into a Royal Challengers Bangalore team that already looks like one. The winner will go top of the points table.