Thursday, January 26, 2023

Faf du Plessis shows he has plenty left in his T20 tank

A couple of months ago, Faf du Plessis suffered a sickening collision during the Pakistan Super League (PSL) – one that left him with a concussion and ruled him out of the tournament. At that juncture, plenty believed that the South African would recover in time and assume his duties at The Hundred, for he had already undergone his fair share of recovery time.

Unfortunately, du Plessis couldn’t take the field during The Hundred, meaning that several started fearing if the batter’s injury was worse than initially envisioned. To an extent, that assumption seemed fair too, considering a concussion is the sort of injury one doesn’t want to take a risk with.

Yet, with the concussion arriving at a time when du Plessis is embarking on the home stretch of his cricketing career, there was a sense of frustration, both on the player and the fans’ part. Not only was du Plessis not getting an opportunity to prove that he can still add value to T20 outfits, it was also a chance lost for his supporters to witness him in action.

Thus, when du Plessis made his CPL 2021 bow with the St. Lucia Kings, countless people heaved a sigh of relief. The cricketer, who has often been garlanded for his bravery and courage, was finally back to playing cricket and as has often been the case, was also being asked to power the Kings’ charge to the title.

In fact, this perhaps embodied du Plessis’ career to the tee as well. Over the years, the South African hasn’t always been at his best but he has been the individual that has carried the burden of expectations. Just another day then in Faf du Plessis’ life, eh?

Nevertheless, when du Plessis struggled during his opening four essays in the CPL, there were a few murmurs suggesting that the batter, post his head injury, might not be able to recreate the magic that has become synonymous with him lately.

However, du Plessis put those doubts to bed on 4th September, when he plundered an extraordinary ton (his first T20 century in franchise cricket) against the St. Kitts and Nevis Patriots, who up until then had not lost a game in the 2021 edition of the CPL. Perhaps an innings of such stature was required to snap the winning streak.

Throughout his essay, the South African picked and chose his moments to attack well. He was particularly severe on Sheldon Cottrell, both in the Power Play and towards the end. Though there were a couple of streaky boundaries at the outset, those were quickly forgotten as du Plessis effortlessly moved through the gears.

Importantly, though, du Plessis kept batting at an excellent tempo throughout his essay – something that hasn’t always been the case in his career but has become more of the norm lately. The innings against the Kolkata Knight Riders at Mumbai in April 2021 springs to mind too.

To place things into context, du Plessis was often the scourge of frustration for Chennai Super Kings fans because he was unable to increase the run rate during the middle overs. Quite often, he got stuck against the spinners, meaning that the batter, despite his belligerent starts, could only muster middling strike rates.

Faf du Plessis was brilliant for CSK in IPL 2020 and 2021

Now, he seems to have developed a mechanism that doesn’t just allow him to bat through the innings at a good strike rate but also one that enables him to transfer the pressure onto the spinners if the situation demands.

Since his IPL debut in 2012, du Plessis has been an ever-present in the CSK setup. While he also had a brief stint at the Rising Pune Supergiant(s), he never really enjoyed a good run of games.

Interestingly enough, before the 2020 instalment, du Plessis had managed a season strike rate in excess of 130 only once, which incidentally, was in 2012 when he struck at 130.92 runs per 100 balls. In 2020 and 2021, he has struck at 140.75 and 145.45, respectively.

du Plessis
du Plessis’ batting numbers have improved drastically over the past couple of years

Thus, there weren’t many startled gazes when he was chopped and changed to accommodate firebrand batters – batters who could throw caution to the wind and create more of an impact.

du Plessis, though, had always been looked upon as a clutch player – something MS Dhoni said in one of CSK’s documentaries, when he quipped that when no one else would stand up, du Plessis would. And, courtesy of that virtue, the South African always remained a crucial cog in the CSK wheel, even if it meant that the franchise ignored batters with the tendency to bat at a higher strike rate.

However, post the 2020 season, where CSK were largely panned for their archaic approach, du Plessis, much like his peers, has been infused with a new lease of life. Not only has he begun batting more freely, he has been pretty consistent too, which considering his propensity to rise to the occasion, isn’t as much of a surprise.

Another shortcoming that the South African seemed to harbor for large stretches of his international career was his inability to rotate strike or score at a good tempo against spinners. While that is perhaps the only area that still needs a bit of correction, he has improved dramatically in the past couple of years.

Though the presence of Ruturaj Gaikwad – one of the best players of spin at CSK has helped, du Plessis has been charting an upward trajectory himself.

Additionally, the right-handed batter has the unique ability to hit sixes over the off side, which considering his awkward grip, illustrates his propensity to optimize the resources at his disposal. In the process, opposition teams haven’t been able to contain him and with him also reading the game to perfection, he has been able to bat as per the team’s requirements.

Most tellingly, though, du Plessis, much like numerous top-level sportspeople, has realized the need to evolve with the changing times. For a major chunk of his international and franchise T20 cricket career, he acted as the anchor, meaning that his strike rate wasn’t as high as it could’ve been. Now, he knows that he needs to bat less sluggishly while continuing to perform the anchor role – something that he seems to have mastered.

Intriguingly, du Plessis, as things stand, isn’t considered good enough to turn out for South Africa in white-ball cricket. At the start of the year, the South African had retired from Test cricket to specifically concentrate on ODIs and T20Is. While that has borne fruit in franchise cricket, the Proteas are yet to reap the rewards, which considering their paucity of batting talent, is pretty astonishing.

Thankfully, CSK and the St. Lucia Kings have put their eggs in the du Plessis basket – something that can serve them well for a couple of years, at the very least because du Plessis has indeed morphed into one of the best T20 openers on the planet.

Maybe, then, the South African has done enough to show that he still has plenty left in his T20 tank. And, after a career that has seen crests and troughs at almost every juncture, it seems fitting that a new wind has been blown into du Plessis’ sails at a time when people had just started writing him off.

After all, he has remained a cricketer that hasn’t been defined by the sheer weight of runs but rather, by the character he has portrayed at every stage, whether it was steering a South African ship on the verge of sinking or becoming the hero almost immediately after being thrust into the deep end of Test cricket.

Or, of course, when a sudden injury threatened to mar the final stretch of what has been an illustrious career.

Just another day(s) in the life of Faf du Plessis, eh?

Also Read: Faf du Plessis – A cricketer defined by character, not runs

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