Varun Shetty in Visakhapatnam (May 11, 2019)

In the first episode of Roar of the Lion, a docudrama about the behind-the-scenes workings at Chennai Super Kings, MS Dhoni is seen discussing the auction strategy ahead of the side’s return to the tournament in 2018. In what seems like a discussion on overseas opening options, he says: “On a slower wicket, Faf is better, because he can give us more use compared to Brendon [presumably, McCullum].”

They went on to use one of their two Right to Match cards to retain Faf du Plessis, using the other one on Dwayne Bravo. Given the nature of that auction, it was essentially a show of confidence from the franchise – du Plessis was considered one of the core five players as they rebuilt the team.

Du Plessis only made one fifty last season, but it was a back-to-the-wall unbeaten 67 in the first Qualifier, where he held together a crumbling batting order to take them to victory with two wickets left. On Friday, with elimination a possibility for Super Kings, du Plessis delivered with yet another considered, calculated fifty that ensured there would be no glitches as the side sought a place in their eighth IPL final.

Du Plessis’ primary challenge on the night was to make sure the side had a strong Powerplay, and to do it in the company of Shane Watson, who had struggled for a sustained run of form all season. What Super Kings consider a strong Powerplay, du Plessis said after the match, is one where they don’t lose a wicket in the first or second over. This translates to a better overall Powerplay according to them, one where they end up with a decent run rate.

The plan nearly blew apart third ball of the chase, with both batsmen stopping mid-pitch and then running towards the same end, and eventually only surviving through a hysterical procession of fielding from Delhi Capitals. With that out of the way, however, du Plessis settled down for the job at hand. His reputation for showing up in tough circumstances is justified: he’s done it in all formats and in the knockout stage of just about every major tournament, save the elusive World Cup final for South Africa.

One of the hallmarks of du Plessis’ batting under pressure is that he’s always prepared to get behind the line of the ball, as seen on the volatile Test surfaces against India early in 2018. That, and his patience.

This season, he’s had to drag those tenets across matches, rather than just in a few matches. Chepauk has produced pitches that could have cost Super Kings a few games had it not been for their incredible record at the toss. Form, flow, and any consequent aggression have been hard to find for this batting line-up. But, true to Dhoni’s words in that episode, du Plessis has managed to be useful.

“The nature of our whole batting line-up is we haven’t been in our best form, because we haven’t been playing on a flat wicket all the time,” du Plessis said. “So naturally you need a few more balls to hit the ball middle of the bat. Once we get through that, we generally score quicker. We saw that innings where Watson got 96 – once he gets through the Powerplay, he plays really well. So that’s a real strength of ours just to get through that, and it just frees up all the players.

“He went about it expertly. It wasn’t a surface on which to attempt six-hitting shots, so he sat back, mostly offering the straight bat as the seamers attacked his stumps, only straying from the plan when Boult strayed marginally short, allowing himself to indulge in an authoritative front-foot pull.

It was only after four overs that he took a risk, slicing away from the body to hit Axar Patel through point, and following it up with an audacious back-foot six over long-off on a slow track. With the shackles broken, he ran into a wayward Ishant Sharma, whom he promptly put away for three fours in a row. From 16 for 0 to 42 for 0. Du Plessis had done it, taken Super Kings to their ideal Powerplay. Importantly, as Watson said at the post-match presentation, he’d given his partner, who would normally be expected to be the aggressor, some time to breathe.

When du Plessis was dismissed, the asking rate was close to run-a-ball and Watson had hit his first six. The foundation had been laid, the partner had been sufficiently supported and Super Kings were virtually through against an anxious young team.

By the end of the game, it wasn’t even the most entertaining fifty, but it had done all the silent work for Super Kings. And du Plessis’ entire time as a Super Kings player since 2012 has been that way, so much so that his record for them – 1025 runs at 35.34 – now falls in the same bracket as Matthew Hayden (1107 at 36.90) and Michael Hussey (1563 at 41.13), who have the best averages by a Super Kings opener. He’s made more than 300 runs in all four seasons where he’s played more than six innings and, in the Super Kings pantheon, is comfortably ahead of M Vijay in the pecking order. Impressive numbers for a middle-order specialist.

“Obviously my career I’ve always batted 3 and 4,” du Plessis said. “So, the first time I really got an opportunity to open was with Chennai. Because that’s where the gap is. Suresh has batted No. 3 since he was 18 for Chennai and he’s going to bat three for I suppose a few more years. Even Dhoni sometimes bats at 4 or 5.

“So the opportunity for me was to open the batting, especially after Hussey, when he left. South Africa team I bat three, it’s probably my best role. It was good for me to just grow my game, just batting different circumstances.”

Over five seasons, the experiment to plug the Hussey gap has resulted in an attempt to forge all of du Plessis’ characteristic resilience and game intelligence into what should be an indispensable opening batsman. While that hasn’t exactly been the case over the years, you can’t read into it too much. Super Kings are a team that excel in putting the right players in the right situations: when it’s time to rebuild the squad, adjust to sticky pitches, or to make the final, they turn to du Plessis. And he delivers.

Source: Big match, high stakes? Better call Faf |

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