The Last Word: How Du Plessis made a stand for a whole generation

A feckless age? Six of the 17 longest Test innings have been played this century

All the initial signs were that he just wouldn't cut it. In T20 thrashes, moving like Nureyev, Faf du Plessis had looked one of the world's best fielders. He had caught Sachin Tendulkar at full stretch, one-handed and tumbling backwards; he was casual author of a run-out, off balance, with a 20-yard view of one stump. Now that he was playing his first Test match, however, he seemed transfixed as the ball spooned gently towards him at backward point. A moment later, Du Plessis and ball were both rolling on the grass, in different directions.

And then he came out to bat. Tried to, anyway. Descending from the Adelaide pavilion, Du Plessis caught a boot on the steps and it came clean off. He knelt, panicking, trying to force on the tightly laced shoe. His mind raced: he was going to be timed out. Either side of the gangway, he heard laughter and jeers. Hey, Faf, didn't they have a pair for two left feet? He jammed the boot half on, hastened on his way – and promptly tripped over the next step. Here was how the Cinderella story plays out in real life. Having waited until 28 to go to the ball, the glass slipper did not seem to fit.

The rest really is history. Du Plessis scored 78 and then, in the second innings, became cornerstone of an epic rearguard action as South Africa saw out 148 overs to save the match – the ninth longest such resistance in Test history. Du Plessis finished unbeaten on 110, from 376 balls, with No 10 clinging to the other end. He has since proceeded to Perth, where 78 not out yesterday (this time from a total of just 225, and batting No 7) leaves him on 266 runs after three Test innings, for once out.

Clearly, he had not been alone in the Adelaide trenches. Dale Steyn compiled a 28-ball duck. Jacques Kallis, on one leg, hung around for two and a half hours. Most remarkably of all, A B de Villiers confined himself to 33 runs from 220 balls, without a single boundary. The swashbuckling De Villiers! Only Chris Tavare, old Drip Dry himself, has managed a more abstemious strike rate for a Test innings in the 30s – taking five and a half hours to congeal 35 runs at Madras in 1982. (At the other end, Graham Gooch had scored 127 when first out, at 155.) But the fact is that Du Plessis arrived at 45 for 4, a putative target of 430 reduced to lasting another four sessions in withering heat and humidity.

More than any other sport, cricket magnifies that redoubt of the human spirit that refuses an obvious destiny. Du Plessis prised a core of inexorability from his team's apparent doom and harnessed it to his own resources, frail as they seemed against such odds: stamina, obstinacy, technique, restraint.

Unique to cricket is the convergence of personal resolution – reflecting an essentially egotistical instinct of self-preservation – and collective interest. Becalmed in the 90s, Du Plessis stemmed a distracting tide of emotion by thinking only of his duty to his comrades, and betrayed a corresponding bashfulness in finally celebrating his ton.

To talk of merely occupying the crease misplaces the emphasis. For the crease itself represents the precarious margin between forbearance and temptation; and so the furrowed, careworn brow. This is already a momentous winter for the competitive purities preserved in the white raiment of Test cricket. Between them Du Plessis and Alastair Cook have exhumed the mysterious rapture that can animate spectators of a five-day stalemate.

How fitting that Test cricket's most cherished rivalry should trace to a cremation. For the ashes of any "dead" match can glow with the dynamic kindling of a phoenix: the birth of a Test batsman, in Du Plessis, or a Test captain, in Cook.

This is said to be a feckless age. Yet six of the 17 longest innings in Test history have been played since 2000. It is too glib, plainly, to charge batsmen of the T20 era with flimsy decadence. In fact, only four of those 17 innings pre-date 1987. True, many factors contribute to that imbalance: the sheer volume of fixtures, and an increasing environmental prejudice towards the bat. But while T20, in particular, absolves him of his responsibility to balance conflicting obligations – and so severs the exquisite tension, between attack and defence, that defines the game – the modern batsman evidently remains capable of deferring fatal indulgence to a nearly tantric degree.

Anomalously, it seems that the stonewaller is applying his mortar more assiduously than ever in the one-day age. It was also at Adelaide, back in 1947, that Godfrey Evans took 97 minutes to get off the mark. He received a telegram from Winston Churchill: "Never did one man bat for so long for so little." Even that record, however, has been eclipsed by a modern batsman: Geoff Allott of New Zealand, with a 101-minute duck in 1999.

Churchill owed some of the finest of his Few to South Africa. And while "Faf" might not sound like a fighter pilot, he has made a stand not just for his country, but also for his generation.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

Bettany Hughes interview

The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

Art of the state

Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

Vegetarian food gets a makeover

Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

The haunting of Shirley Jackson

Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen