du Plessis eager to master the Asian challenge

Batsman says he's feeling good and he wants to do well away from home for his team

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
Faf du Plessis wants to make an impact away from home  •  Getty Images

Faf du Plessis wants to make an impact away from home  •  Getty Images

If Faf du Plessis sounds confident ahead of South Africa's series in Pakistan it's not necessarily because he is. It's because he wants to be.
Like every member of the touring party, he is entering the unknown and in an especially important period of a rebuilding Test team, he wants to make the best impression he can. "Fake it til you make it," du Plessis joked, even though he is the batsman in the line-up who has truly made it.
After his gracious stepping down from leadership last summer, du Plessis enjoyed a successful IPL and a stunning international return with two half centuries in South Africa's T20 series and a career-best 199 against Sri Lanka. Without the weight of leading the team, du Plessis has played and spoken with freedom. "It's coming from a place of contentment," he said. "I am intentional in making sure I really enjoy my cricket. If that comes through in performances or the way that I speak, then I am glad that it's happening."
But he also accepts that comes with some additional responsibility, especially when it comes to batting in conditions that are foreign to everyone. "I am batting well at the moment, feeling good and I really want to play my best cricket. I also want to put in some good performances in the subcontinent. It's really important for me to do well overseas," du Plessis said.
Asia and England are two places abroad that du Plessis has not scored a hundred and the subcontinent is where his statistics are the least impressive. In 15 Test matches across India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and the UAE, he averages 22.70, well below his overall average of 41.08. Given that South Africa have talked up Pakistan as being the best place for batting in the subcontinent, du Plessis could well be eyeing it as the tour to improve on those numbers but he hasn't seen enough to be sure it will be as batsmen-friendly as its been hyped up to be.
South Africa had their first training session at the National Stadium on Saturday but they have yet to see the surface they will play on and are still playing a guessing game on what to expect when the Test stats on Tuesday. Previous South African sides, like the last one that toured the country in 2007 and included coach Mark Boucher, noted that Pakistan was flatter than India or Sri Lanka and took less turn, while from the practice facilities Kagiso Rabada said he expects reverse swing to play a role. Du Plessis thinks spin will have a big say, especially as Pakistan look to make use of home advantage and South Africa's historic weakness. "I think the wickets will be a bit more subcontinent like than it used to be back then and spinners will probably be a little more in the game," du Plessis said.
After tough tours of India (2015 and 2019) and Sri Lanka (2018), perhaps du Plessis is predisposed to saying that. Or maybe it's the memories of playing Pakistan in their adopted home in the UAE, of a trial by turn, that inform his opinion of this tour. "Every time I went out to bat there, Saeed Ajmal was warming up. Sometimes I would wake up in the middle of the night and he would be bowling at me."
Ajmal actually only dismissed du Plessis once in three innings in the 2013 series that South Africa won, but in an earlier rubber, and even though it was at home, du Plessis struggled to pick the doosra. There's no-one in Pakistan's squad who presents that kind of threat for this series, but there's still a danger man in Yasir Shah.
"From a spin point of view when you come to the subcontinent, the theory is like when we are playing in South Africa when we play and miss against the seamer. If he bowls a good ball and it spun past your bat, it's just making sure you see it as a good ball and it went past your bat and you played it well," du Plessis said. "But it's also about making sure you are looking at two or or three ways of getting off strike. The challenge is when a spinner bowls a lot of dot balls and you feel stuck and you can't get off strike and he settles into bowling a good area which Yasir Shah is very good at. He has really got good control. If you just let him bowl at you, he will bowl really well at you. You need to make sure you've got some plans to either get ones off him or have scoring options to get some boundaries."
He also identified left-armer Shaheen Shah Afridi, who "has been hot the last two seasons," as another threat and warned South Africa of Pakistan's captain as well. "Having Babar back is massive for them. I would say he is up there with the top three batters in the world at the moment," du Plessis said. "His last two seasons, in all formats, have been nothing short of remarkable."
Babar currently lies sixth on the ICC Test rankings, third on the ODI charts and second in T20Is and his value for Pakistan has been reflected in the enormity of his absence. He missed the Tests in New Zealand with a fractured thumb and his return makes Pakistan a more competitive team. "With any team if you take out their best batter, it leaves a hole and If you take his runs out of the team, Pakistan becomes a team you feel you can get on top of quite easily," du Plessis said.
Pakistan might feel similarly about du Plessis or even Quinton de Kock, who had a poor series against Sri Lanka and appears to be straining under the weight of captaincy. Though du Plessis is not looking to take back the reins, he can see that de Kock is receiving support. "From a management point of view, they are trying to make sure they don't put too much on his plate. (Mark) Boucher tries to do most of the things when it comes to setting up practices, talking, planning and meetings," du Plessis said. "They are trying to make sure they are taking some of the burden off him so he can focus on just playing cricket. That's when he is dangerous."
Though de Kock will return home with the Test squad and won't captain the T20I side against Pakistan in Lahore, he will also lead South Africa in the home Test series against Australia and the white-ball matches against Pakistan that are scheduled to follow. By then South Africa will have spent several months in a bio-secure bubble, which, like many cricketers du Plessis thinks "is not sustainable," and will need to be reconsidered as the pandemic wears on.
For now, du Plessis is enjoying the challenge and ready to take on Pakistan. "Right now I am still in a good place. I am still motivated and driven but I can only speak for myself," he said, with his game face on. Or not.
"Fake it til you make it," remember? The next few weeks will tell.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent