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Du Plessis' improved spin game makes him 'a pretty tough man to bowl to'

He has tweaked his role according to his team's needs, even at 38, even at the fag end of a successful career

Abhimanyu Bose
When you have over 250 internationals under your belt and are close to the end of a successful career at the age of 38, you would be forgiven for going about your business with the tools and skills you are comfortable with. After all, if your game has served you well for so long, why change it now when you have little left to prove?
But for Faf du Plessis, it's never too late to learn, improve and adapt, and in the last few years, he has added a new gear to his game: improved hitting against spin.
Just past the halfway stage in IPL 2023, du Plessis leads the run chart with 422 runs. He has got these runs at a strike rate of 167.46, the fastest among the top ten in the list so far.
A major factor in his performance this year has been his marked improvement against spin, which has been an issue for him for long in T20 cricket.
In T20s between 2017 and 2021, du Plessis scored 1032 runs against spin at a strike rate of 115.80. From the start of 2022, he has scored 900 runs against spin with his strike rate shooting up to 138.42.
In this season, du Plessis has scored the fastest against spin among all other seasons where he has faced at least 100 deliveries. And the increase in strike rate is a significant one.
"The beauty of Faf is that, even though he's 38, he's developing his game all the time," Mike Hesson, Royal Challengers Bangalore's director of cricket, told ESPNcricinfo recently. "We had a couple of discussions last year around playing spin - especially in the powerplay - and playing left-arm seam. Those were two areas of his game that we'd sat down, discussed and were like, 'hey, we've noticed these; if you can add to your game in these areas…'
"How are you going to do it is probably the more important thing. It's not like you can just flick a switch and say, 'now I'm going to whack spin'. It's very much a tactical shift, and a lot of technical work is involved. He took that as a challenge. He went away and we saw major gains in the Caribbean [Premier] League, where he started to take on spin and the left-arm seamers. Those were probably two parts of his game where opposition would potentially try and attack, so once he filled that gap, he's a pretty tough man to bowl to."
The change isn't just due to an improvement against any one type of spin. He has fared better against all kinds of spin over the last two years, barring left-arm spin, where he has gotten out thrice in 11 deliveries since the start of 2022.
For most of his boundaries, du Plessis has stayed leg side of the ball, sometimes backing away far enough to expose all his stumps. This has allowed him to make room, free his arms and muscle the ball to all parts of the ground in front of square.
Even with his trigger movement towards leg, if a spinner has tried taking the ball away from him, he has been quick enough to reach out and still get the ball away, like he did when he cut a very wide Rahul Chahar delivery for four during the match against Punjab Kings. Or, more impressively, when he was backing away to Lucknow Super Giants' Ravi Bishnoi but adjusted to stretch and slap him for six over cover.
But the trigger movement is not a constant. He has also been happy to stay still, like he did in the delivery after that six off Bishnoi, when he pummelled a long hop outside off over cow corner and watched the ball fly 115 metres.
What has seemed to be constant is that he does not skip out of the crease and is happy to hang back and wait for the delivery to come to him. Even the movement to leg is lateral.
"It's more around where he sets up and the positions he wants to get himself into to access different parts of the park," Hesson said. "It's more about alignment and set-up, really, so he can access all parts of the park and use his strengths. After that, it's just a mindset shift."
His strike rate against spinning deliveries he has been in control of this season is a whopping 176.3, by far his best in any season in the IPL so far. His best year before this in that regard was in 2019, when he scored at 139.4 off spinners when he was in control.
This suggests that earlier, when he was at Chennai Super Kings especially, his role was to take on pace and against spinners, hand the strike over to his team-mates who are more proficient at that game. But after his move to RCB, his role needed tweaking.
His opening partner Virat Kohli's slowdown against spin, especially after the powerplay, has been well documented. Kohli, in IPL 2023, has struck at 113.76 against spin.
But du Plessis' increased aggression against spin is not just an effort to make up for a slowdown at the other end, or limited to when he needs to be the aggressor.
In IPL 2023, du Plessis has been part of the five highest partnerships so far, all more than 100 runs. Two of those have been with Kohli, while three were with Glenn Maxwell, who is RCB's middle-order enforcer against spin.
But his strike rate against spin while batting with Maxwell (144.4) barely drops as compared to when he bats with Kohli (146.3). He attacks 35.8% of the balls he faces against spinners while batting with Kohli and 33.3% of them when he has Maxwell for company at the crease.
This new version of du Plessis has no doubt played a big role in RCB going from being the second-slowest scorers in the middle overs in 2021 (run rate of 7.14) to the third-quickest in 2023 (run rate of 9).
RCB's decision to sign du Plessis before last year's mega-auction and then appoint him captain was a calculated gamble, one rooted in the hope that he still had the commitment and drive to evolve, even in his late 30s. Based on this season's evidence, it is a gamble that appears to be paying off - particularly if he can drag them into the playoffs for the fourth year running.

Abhimanyu Bose is a sub-editor with ESPNcricinfo