From jeers to cheers: how Faf du Plessis gradually got inside Australia’s heads

His boot clips the stairs, foot slipping out, limbs desperately clutching at imaginary holds. Eventually, for a brief moment, he sits kneeling in front of a jeering Australian crowd.

The shoeless soldier now stands, straddles, hobbles – whatever you might want to call it – to return the shoe to its rightful podiatric appendage, but with laces tied and batting pad in the way, the only thing that returns is more jeers.

With the clock ticking down and the threat of earning the dubious honour of being timed out on his Test debut, Faf du Plessis breathed a sigh of relief when he did make it out to the middle of the Adelaide Oval in 2012, shoe firmly lodged where it belonged.

“It can’t go worse than that,” he thought to himself.

In those few moments en route to that agonisingly absorbing Test debut, Du Plessis encapsulated everything that would come to define him as a player: a gritty bastard, who’d always get back up if it allowed him to spin a good yarn and, once upon a time, a few leggies, too.

If you can remember that far back, Du Plessis batted for over 200 minutes in the first innings, but it is the 466 minutes in the second, for an unbeaten 110* that razzled in a way that even his most flamboyant T20 antics never could.

His effort, alongside old schoolmate AB de Villiers, would help South Africa engineer the most unlikely escape against an old Aussie foe. Snails have been observed moving faster over sandpaper, but despite his reputation as a hit-and-giggle hitman, it was always more about efficiency than getting there quickly for Faf.

And wondering what could have been or how much worse it could get has always been part of his story, too.

So nearly lost to obscurity during those heady early days of the Kolpakalypse, he was very nearly lost to Lancashire before making his debut for South Africa in the shorter format of the game. The chance for a Test debut came only because of an injury to JP Duminy.

The captaincy gig only followed after being looked over twice in favour of AB de Villiers and Hashim Amla.

Du Plessis would never again spend that much time at the crease in a single Test innings as he did in Adelaide, the closest being 412 minutes against Sri Lanka in Centurion last year. But he must have lived rent-free in Australia’s heads for hours.

In 2016, now captain, Du Plessis’ scorned landlords came to collect their payment, with interest. Charged and found guilty of ball tampering after #Mintgate, some alignment of serendipitous equations collided to deliver another bit of cosmic retribution in 2018.

Australia got caught in the tampering crossfire this time – but with far more catastrophic extravagance than Du Plessis ever did. Just to rub it in, with sandpaper or not, that series win cemented his place in cricketing folklore, when he became the first South African captain to win on home soil against the Australians in the post-isolation era.

Quite an effort for a bloke who can’t even keep his shoes on with the laces tied.

Intertwined in the Du Plessis tapestry there is something else that has always been a hallmark of a man whose hair has its own Twitter parody account.

Du Plessis was always good value at press conferences. He’d offer insight rather than platitudes, considered quips rather than textbook riffs.

So, his response that “we do not see colour” after he was asked about Temba Bavuma being dropped felt somewhat off-kilter for somebody considered to be thoughtful and well-versed in the myriad complexities that come with being South African, never mind a captain of something South African.

But, just like that trip on those Adelaide steps and the decision to not follow the Kolpak highway and everything else in between, taught him something

Like all things Du Plessis does, it took some time. His comment was at the start of 2020. In July that year, as sporting teams showed their support for the Black Lives Matter Movement, Du Plessis became one of the most prominent white South African cricketers to speak out.

On his personal Instagram account, he wrote: “I am saying that all lives don’t matter UNTIL black lives matter. I’m speaking up now‚ because if I wait to be perfect‚ I never will.

“I want to leave a legacy of empathy. The work needs to continue for the change to come and whether we agree or disagree‚ conversation is the vehicle for change.

“I have gotten it wrong before. Good intentions were failed by a lack of perspective when I said on a platform that – I don’t see colour. In my ignorance I silenced the struggles of others by placing my own view on it.”

Du Plessis leaves some big boots to fill. But, unlike the Cinderella tale that started on the steps in Adelaide in 2012, these aren’t the kind of boots that need to be a perfect fit. They’re the kind we can all wear and pull back on, no matter the jeers.

Jingle by James Sherwood