Tuesday, 28 January 2020

Faf du Plessis and the implacable cruelty of cricket

Faf du Plessis is so comically alpha that he can have AB de Villiers as a friend since schooldays and not be overshadowed. AB might be the greater player but he's one of life's handsome wingmen, Ice Man to Faf's Maverick.

Faf du Plessis is so alpha, his box is called 'The Beast'. He wears pink gloves and has pink stickers on his bat in the same way that 1980s lover boys wore a pink shirt, to let the ladies know. His own playing shirts have the sleeves cut high to best display those magnificent triceps.

Faf is so alpha the grill on his helmet is specially adjusted to keep clear of his movie star jawline*. You could shred your fist on that razor-wire stubble. When he was once asked, at a pre-match interview, why Hardus Viljoen wasn't on the teamsheet, he replied, 'because he's in bed with my sister,' and smirked at the camera.

At the Bullring Faf went down with his ship, last hand of a generation on deck. He was done, cooked, the eyes had taken on that thousand-yard stare that skippers who have gone a series too far tend to get. He went into bat in the final innings with South Africa's score at 89-2, almost two days of cricket to play and another 376 needed to win. They had been caned in the last couple of games, and they were getting a further pasting in this one.

He knew the odds. How often would he get out of a similar Test with something, with anything - one time in a hundred? One in thousand? That's why they still talk about Atherton at the Bullring, why VVS Laxman has a wonderful life, eased along by the number 281. From this position in Test match cricket, you don't draw and you don't win. From this position you lose. You always lose.

The pitch had fourth day pub nutter tendencies, overly friendly one moment, threatening to glass you in the face the next. Faf's highest score in the series was 36. Since 2018, he had averaged above 36 in one of the eight series he had played. His career mark was about to dip below 40, which his career didn't deserve.

He dug in anyway. After 40 deliveries, he'd made nine. At the other end, Rassie van der Dussen was playing the innings of his short career, somehow smacking the bowling around, taking a heavy shot in the chest and battling on. The pub nutter pitch appeared temporarily placated. Root brought on Joe Denly. Faf watched from the non-striker's end as Rassie pumped long hops and full tosses over the rope. How he could do with a few of those himself, just to get the muscle memory going, but each time he got on strike Denly hit his length.

He was pleased for the kid anyway. He and a couple of the others were players who could maybe grab the torch and take it on. That's what old fighters hoped for, some kind of legacy. Leave it better than you found it. Mark Wood came back on, and he absolutely pured one off his pads, right out of the middle, easy as the glory days. Stokes, who has the odd pub nutter tendency himself, came back too, and suddenly the pitch was doing all sorts again, every other ball jumping from a length and smacking his gloves.

He got to 35, one short of his best for the series. His career average flickered back above the mark all batsmen want. He had batted for two hours and ten minutes, faced 91 deliveries. Stokes bowled again. He propped forward again and instead of jumping up, the ball hit something and stayed down, took the under edge of the bat and flicked off the bails without touching the stumps at all. He bent even lower, sank to a knee, beaten at last, beaten again.

He'd barely got his pads off when Rassie clothed a drive to short cover, out two short of the maiden century that he'd so deserved. Temba Bavuma, so often the whipping boy on social media, got to 27 before he copped a throat ball from Stuart Broad. He wondered if anyone knew how hard it was to score 27 on that pitch against that sort of bowling, how good you had to be to do that?

It was over. Big Vern got a strangle in his last Test innings. Maybe he deserved more, too. de Kock got out going death or glory, the highest run scorer on either side for the series. He deserved something, surely. There was even a run-out, which always happens in games like these.

Faf du Plessis was comically alpha. He stared the game down, time after time, but the game is cruel and implacable and notions like 'earn' and 'deserve', concepts of karma and reward, exist only in the mind, glimpsed in victory, rued in defeat.

It was all over at last.

* this one may not be true. 'The Beast' box is real, though. And in fairness to his excellent line, Faf went on to explain that his sister and Hardus had just got married.

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