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Steel and swag - Faf du Plessis' greatest hits in Test cricket

He might not have ended with fantastic numbers, but du Plessis has been one of South Africa's most respected and charismatic players

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
Faf du Plessis celebrates a century on debut, Australia v South Africa, 2nd Test, Adelaide, 5th day, November 26, 2012

Faf du Plessis, on debut, saved the Adelaide Test for South Africa in 2012  •  Getty Images

Faf du Plessis has not finished his Test career as South Africa's highest run-scorer or their most successful captain, but he has been one of their most respected and charismatic players. He took them through a difficult - and ongoing - transition, while even acting as their official Australia assassin. du Plessis averaged 46.73 against Australia, which bloomed to 86.16 when playing away. He is also the only South Africa captain to record both home and away series wins over the opponents.
du Plessis also had a way of getting under Australian skin - not through sledging or sarcasm but with swag. Thus, it is no surprise that half of his six sweetest knocks came against them. The other half included defiance against India, determination against New Zealand as du Plessis stepped into captaincy, and a drive to still be the best in the penultimate series of his career against Sri Lanka.
110* vs Australia: Adelaide, November 2012
After traveling as a reserve member of the squad to England earlier that year, du Plessis' Test debut came with South Africa trying to defend the Test mace in Australia. After a drawn first Test in Brisbane, the hosts had the advantage on the final day in Adelaide, with South Africa 77 for 4 overnight while chasing 430 to win. du Plessis was not out on 19 at that stage.
He had given a solid account of himself with 78 in the first innings, despite almost being timed out because his boot slipped off his foot on the way down; but no one would have anticipated what came next. In an epic vigil, du Plessis faced 376 balls, spent close to eight hours at the crease, withstood jibes from David Warner and Ricky Ponting, a tireless effort from Peter Siddle and Nathan Lyon, three reviews and a dropped catch on 94 to bring up his first Test century and force an unlikely draw. South Africa went on to win the series in the third Test in Perth, with du Plessis scoring a second half-century.
134 vs India: Johannesburg, December 2013
Although an established member of the team by this point, du Plessis had not crossed fifty in eight innings before this one. India set South Africa 458, and although they were chugging along nicely at 138 for 2 at the end of the fourth day, victory was far enough for it to not be on South Africa's minds.
du Plessis had been promoted to No. 4 - ostensibly as a nightwatchman - and bedded in. He shared a 54-run stand with Jacques Kallis and then a 205-run partnership with his school friend AB de Villiers in which they complemented each other perfectly. de Villiers was the aggressor, if only mildly so, while du Plessis the defender, who faced 309 balls in six hours and 35 minutes in the middle. By the time he was run out, South Africa were just 16 away from victory. They didn't chase the win but opted for the tail to block out a draw, only to go on and win the series in the following match in Durban.
112* vs New Zealand: Centurion, August 2016
It had been almost two years since du Plessis scored a hundred, and he had even been dropped in that time. But not only was he soon recalled, but also installed as temporary Test captain as South Africa sought to emerge from the ashes of the 2015 World Cup. The first match against a feisty New Zealand side had been drawn because of a damp outfield in Durban, and South Africa were desperate to make a statement in the second at SuperSport Park.
Their top order fired, with fifty-plus scores for Stephen Cook, Quinton de Kock, Hashim Amla and JP Duminy, but only du Plessis got to a century. He scored slowly, as was his wont at the time, as it was an innings in which he never looked entirely comfortable. Yet, this was an innings of grit and nerve, of edges and near misses, and of figuring things out again. But it still showed that he belonged as a leader because of the way he lapped up the extra responsibility. South Africa thus declared on 481 for 8, and went on to win the series.
118* vs Australia: Adelaide, November 2016
Lightning only strikes once, they say. Except if you are du Plessis. Still in stand-in captaincy capacity, he took South Africa to Australia, where they were unflustered at losing Dale Steyn to a broken shoulder in Perth and took the lead before wrapping up the series win thanks to a potent bowling performance in Hobart. By the time the tour got to Adelaide, scene of du Plessis' dream debut from South Africa's previous tour, it was all fun and games. Sort of.
du Plessis had only scored 76 runs in three innings on the tour until then but, more importantly, had been caught with a mint in his mouth in the second Test. This was not the first time though that he was accused of ball-tampering. In 2013, he was found rubbing the ball against the zip of his pants in the UAE, leading to zips being removed from the kit and a 100% fine of his match fee. He insisted the Australia incident was different, though the ICC disagreed as du Plessis had to forego his payment again but was not banned from the series finale, which was also South Africa's first day-night Test.
Amid boos and under lights, and against a seaming and swinging ball, he scored a century to take his team from 44 for 3 to over 250. du Plessis called it his "best" knock and admitted he had never been more motivated to show what he was made of after having his integrity questioned. But, after all that drama, South Africa still lost the match.
120 vs Australia: Johannesburg, March 2018
The final frontier was hosting Australia. Though South Africa had won three successive series in Australia since readmission, they had not been able to do the same at home and du Plessis made it his mission to change that. By this stage, he was permanent captain and had made the side truly his own. When the series started with an altercation between Warner and de Kock, it was du Plessis who emerged from the change room to break it up, though only with a towel around his waist. He defended de Kock and criticised Australia's on-field comments even as South Africa lost the first match in Durban.
Things could easily have unravelled for them, but du Plessis kept his team together - and even regularly planted kisses on his fast bowlers' foreheads as they performed beyond expectation - as they went on to win in Port Elizabeth and Cape Town. The latter game came after senior Australia players were found to have hatched a plan to use sandpaper on the ball to aid reverse swing. Mid-Test, Australia lost captain Steven Smith, vice-captain Warner and opener Cameron Bancroft, as South Africa went to Johannesburg knowing they could not lose the series.
A broken Australia were 267 runs behind at the Wanderers, but du Plessis chose not to enforce the follow-on and instead to pile on more misery. South Africa added another 344, with 120 of them belonging to du Plessis, before finishing Australia off for 112 to win the series 3-1. This was an innings where du Plessis took the opportunity to rub salt in the opposition's wounds, all while offering Australia sympathy for the struggles they were going through.
199 vs Sri Lanka: Centurion, December 2020
Things went downhill for du Plessis after that summer as he led South Africa through series losses against Sri Lanka - both home and away - as well as a chastening tour of India in 2019. He returned home to administrative turmoil, racial controversy and a series loss to England that summer, following which he stood down as the Test captain. And though he stayed on as a player, he remained one under pressure. Between February 2019 and December 2020, du Plessis averaged 29 from nine Tests. The question was whether he still had it.
In the Boxing Day Test, albeit against a Sri Lankan attack that was down to one frontline bowler for parts of the innings, du Plessis scored a daddy hundred which should have been a double. He batted with the carefreeness of a man unburdened and sauntered his way to 199 before picking out a fielder in search of a glory shot. The milestone aside, that innings was proof of the value he could continue to add as a senior batsman in a struggling side. But he only played five more innings, the last of them on South Africa's first tour to Pakistan in 14 years, before calling time on a career that may not be remembered in numbers but for its nuances.
du Plessis, whether a captain or not, was a man for a crisis. At a time when South African cricket went through so much, they could not have asked for a cooler head or a more caring character.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent