TELFORD VICE, Johannesburg
YOU would be forgiven for thinking a finely-tuned machine powered SA to victory in the second test against New Zealand at Centurion on Tuesday.
From losing the toss, and so not having to decide what to do on a mystery pitch, to Quinton de Kock making a fist – in both innings – of opening the batting as an emergency replacement for the injured Dean Elgar, to Faf du Plessis emerging from the ranks of five half-centurions to reach three figures, to the triumphant return of Dale Steyn, everything clicked with uncanny precision.
And at the centre of it all stood Du Plessis, the captain’s captain, a man to the manner of leadership born and raised in the art.
“He played a fantastic captain’s knock in tough conditions,” Du Plessis’ counterpart, Kane Williamson, said.
“For Faf to stick around as long as he did and score a hundred as captain was certainly a special moment for him.
“But, more importantly, it put his side in a winning position.”
And win they did, by 204 runs with a day to spare to jail the series 1-0.
Du Plessis drew fire for slow batting during his gritty 112 not out in the first innings.
But that was what a challenging surface demanded, and let’s not forget that Trent Boult and Tim Southee are among the better fast bowlers in world cricket.
As captain, Du Plessis’ role didn’t end at the crease.
He timed both declarations cannily – New Zealand lost clumps of wickets early in both innings – and rotated his three quicks effectively: none of them bowled more than 20 overs in either innings.
After tea on Tuesday, when SA were five wickets away from winning, off-spinner Dane Piedt bowled to a field that bristled with two slips, a silly point and a short leg.
Du Plessis, then, seemed to have a firm grip on attacking as well as consolidating tactics and was always in understated control.
Which he should be by now having captained teams of all flavours 75 times since his first time at the helm, for Northerns under-19, almost 15 years ago.
But this was Du Plessis’ first taste of test captaincy and he landed the job only because AB de Villiers was ruled out of the series with an elbow injury.
In fact, Du Plessis leadership experience probably secured his place in the team.
Having failed to scored a century in 15 innings he was dropped for the last match of SA’s previous test series, against England at Centurion in January.
Problem solved, it would seem.
But did he perform well enough to spark serious thoughts of him keeping the reins?
“I enjoy captaincy; I think it brings the best out of me,” Du Plessis said.
“But I’m 100% a stand-in.
“AB is the test captain and I’ll support him fully in that.
“We can’t wait to have him back.
“He is a huge member of our team, obviously in his playing capabilities but also in a leadership role – he’s a massive leader in our team and we’ve missed him in this series.
“But if the opportunity comes again in the future it’s always something I’ll want to do and enjoy doing.
“At the moment I know I’m just there to support.”
Even so, SA won’t be unhappy that their machine isn’t short of an expert operator.