TELFORD VICE, Cape Town
SOMETIMES the little things matter, things like one of the many smiles Faf du Plessis wore at Newlands on Wednesday.
It was not the smile he had for the fans after South Africa had beaten Australia for the fifth straight time, nor the one he unfurled at the press conference that followed, nor even the one he would have had fixed on his face when he turned off the light that night.
Instead, it was the smile Du Plessis couldn’t help cracking in the mad moments after Imran Tahir had fired a full toss at Matthew Wade in the 42nd over.
Wade, as competent as he is competitive, darted outside off and nurdled the ball to fine leg.
Du Plessis set after it, dived, made contact with half-a-hand, scrambled up, flopped over as the damn thing squirted away, and was then reduced to crawling after it like a half-squashed spider before, finally, the ball was secured and tossed with not a little disgust back from whence it came.
South Africa’s captain would have known Australia needed 91 off 52, and that as long as the feisty David Warner was alive at the crease so were the Aussies’ chances of winning. And Warner was rudely alive.
Which was when Du Plessis, still on his hands and knees, looked up and allowed his face to melt into the smile that mattered most.
There are several reasons South Africa outplayed Australia, among them a batting order that refused to give up to an attack that was never without ideas, to the visitors’ inexperienced bowlers – which was more than matched by the injury enforced absence of AB de Villiers.
But the Faf factor is right up there, his rock steady leadership the calm eye of the hurricane international cricket quickly becomes.
And that from a man who was dropped for his home test against England last season and – but for the gammy elbow that kept De Villiers out of the tests against New Zealand in September and the ODIs against Australia – might have missed more games than he has since played for South Africa, nevermind lead them.
“In my first two years as captain I tried to make sure you have the best interests of the players (at heart) and make sure you have them on you side the whole time and try and connect with them,” Du Plessis said in the afterglow of Wednesday’s win.
“But I’ve learnt in the past two months that it’s more important to challenge players and get the best out of them and really be honest with them.”
Du Plessis also deserves honesty, and the truth is he is South Africa’s best captain, whatever the format.
Also true is that Russell Domingo deserved better than the insulting tone of much of the criticism slung his way in the wake of South Africa’s disappointing 2015-16 campaign.
“As a squad we made a huge transition when we went away and had a hard look at ourselves, and the great thing was coaches were part of it,” Du Plessis said.
“They were really eager to try and improve themselves. Since that day they’ve been brilliant.
“Russell has stepped up his game. He is challenging people and players now to try and be better.”
To beat Australia in Australia, where South Africa jet off to today to play three tests next month, they will have to be more than better.
They will have to be at their best, especially as De Villiers is still out.
But they have Du Plessis, Domingo, the dream delivered of a 5-0 whipping of Australia, and this: “It’s good to see smiles on people’s faces and if we’re responsible for that, that’s great.”
South Africa, that is your captain speaking.
If that doesn’t make you smile, nothing will.