TELFORD VICE, Johannesburg
FAF du Plessis has been South Africa’s test captain for only eight matches, but already the defining moments of his tenure are mounting.
One of them came with eight balls remaining at the Wanderers on Thursday, the first day of the third test against Sri Lanka, when JP Duminy’s fine 155 ended with an edge to second slip.
What to do?
Du Plessis, next in according to the scorecard, might have taken guard himself.
Or he might have sent in Vernon Philander, whose CV includes stints as a nightwatchman.
Temba Bavuma, Quinton de Kock, Wayne Parnell and Kagiso Rabada were Du Plessis’ other choices.
Surely he wouldn’t pick on the debutant fast bowler, Duanne Olivier …
Hashim Amla, who was regrouping at the crease after sharing a stand of 292 with Duminy, also didn’t think so.
“I was very surprised,” Amla, who after playing 100 tests around the world has seen just about everything there is to see on a cricket ground, said about looking up to spot the less than familiar figure of Olivier striding out to join him in the middle.
In other sections of the ground there was sneering rather than surprise.
Just what did Du Plessis think he was doing? This was test cricket – decidedly not a vehicle for gimmicks.
Du Plessis was doing what he does so well: empathising.
Days earlier he had noticed that Olivier chose an older ball with which to bowl in the nets, not a newer nut that would have bounced more and perhaps moved off a more prominent seam.
That told Du Plessis that Olivier was a team man, not someone out to impress on thin evidence.
And South Africa needed a man to go out there and do it for the team when Duminy got out so close to stumps.
Olivier, meanwhile, would have been anxious for something to do after his captain had won the the toss and, despite having picked an all-seam attack, decided to bat.
Now, eight balls from stumps, he was given something to do: go be that team man you already are.
“I have never done it, even at franchise level,” Olivier, of the Knights, said about the nightwatchman’s role.
“So I thought it was an opportunity for my country, to see how I’m going to take it on and do it.
“Of course I was nervous going out there, batting with a guy like Hashim.
“It was an unbelievable experience for me.”
Believe this – Olivier blocked all four balls he was required to face on Thursday, the last of them a yorker from Nuwan Pradeep that could have undone many a more experienced player.
Did he volunteer his batting services, or was he voluntold?
“They said, ‘Do you want to do it?’, and I decided why not – it’s an opportunity,” he said.
“It was scary because I don’t even bat as high for the franchise like I am batting for my country.
“But it was quite exciting for me.”
The next day Olivier faced nine more deliveries before thick-edging his maiden test single through gully.
Mathews had him caught behind for three off 24 balls.
Job done, young man. And well done.
Well done, too, to Du Plessis, who had successfully blooded the 24-year-old quick long before he was asked to mark out a run-up.
When he did, bowling nine overs in each innings, he took 2/19 and 3/38 and looked the part of a test fast bowler even though he was about as far out of his comfort zone as Bloemfontein’s famed Mystic Boer pub is from Canterbury Cathedral.
“When I play four-day cricket, there’s no-one watching,” Olivier said.
“Here, it feels like there are 20 million people watching.
“It’s intense, it’s crazy, you need to concentrate, you need to be on the ball, you can’t wander off and start watching what’s happening on the big screen.
“It’s exciting and its also challenging.
“The level is so different, you can’t compare.”
Olivier, rangy and rawboned, blessed with an open, honest face and possessed of a pair of shoulders that should have Stuart renamed Narrow, bowled from the heart with his shirt hanging out like some refugee from a bad 1970s movie.
Simply, he belonged.
“Everyone welcomed me and it felt like I was part of the family,” Olivier said, adding with a nod towards the scribbling squad of reporters sat in front of him: “I’m very new to everything – I’m not used to doing this at all.”
What of the future, especially as it promises to be cluttered with the return from injury of Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel?
“I know they are coming back,” Olivier said. “If I get the opportunity to play again of course I’ll want to play.
“Who doesn’t want to play for their country?
“But I also understand they’ve been performing well for the last 10 years.
“I will get my opportunity and I’ll wait for it, whenever it comes.”
We know the kid can bowl. Now we know he can think, too.
And another thing: he can bat a bit.