SA regain focus, discipline under du Plessis
South Africa have lost the Test.
Truly, madly, deeply.
And in four days, to boot.
Faf du Plessis walks into the press conference and faces the journalists, all eager to dissect the defeat, find reasons for the mistakes and grab the top news line. Du Plessis leans back in his chair and looks at the man to his right. Faf won't be answering those questions today. That's a job for stand-in captain, Dean Elgar.
After fielding questions on no-balls, fielding errors and a bowler's colourful language, Elgar jokingly mimes handing over the captain's arm band to du Plessis with relief. While Elgar has taken the reigns under difficult circumstances, the deference in the action is clear.
Faf's back, baby. Faf's back.
Du Plessis knows what it's like to be the bench warmer for a captain. For his first two series in charge, the prospect of AB de Villiers' return to the Test team and the captaincy lingered all around the dressing room. It wasn't until South Africa returned home from their successful tour of Australia that his temporary job became a full-time gig.
In the 12 Tests during his tenure so far, South Africa have lost only one, a dead rubber: the day-night match in Adelaide against an Australian side which had been so overwhelmingly shattered in the second Test in Hobart that it sparked headlines screaming of a crisis and ended international careers.
A sample size of 12 is hardly enough to make a definitive judgment on the strength of a captain but the change in South Africa from one week to the next suggests he brings focus and discipline to the side. Calm, according to Vernon Philander. After the Lord's drubbing, du Plessis spoke of working on the basics: South Africa bowled 14 no-balls in the first Test - two of them costing wickets. At Trent Bridge, there were none.
When du Plessis won the toss on a cloudy day in Nottingham and elected to bat, eyebrows waggled furiously and tongues tutted all around. What is he thinking? Doesn't he know the conditions are tailor-made for James Anderson? Didn't he see what Stuart Broad and Ben Stokes did to Australia here two years ago? Is he being naively brave or recklessly stupid?
Du Plessis, however, wasn't just making a tactical decision; he was also sending a message to his team-mates and to the opposition.
Du Plessis has a definite swagger, in a gum-chewing, cool-cat kind of way. Come at us, he defied England, give it your best shot fellas. We're not afraid. We bat on green wickets in South Africa, so what? To his own batsmen, some of whom have struggled for form in recent months, he offered unflinching support: I trust you to see off the new ball, to negotiate the best swing and seam they can throw at you. You've got this. Heino Kuhn and Hashim Amla duly obliged and, from there, South Africa never looked back.
Before the second Test, after he'd made the decision to drop JP Duminy (the player, whose injury at the Gabba in 2012 handed du Plessis the opening to make his memorable Test debut), he approached Quinton de Kock and asked him where he'd prefer to bat. De Kock was unequivocal: he wanted to bat at four and be given the license to attack. Faf promptly moved him up the order; de Kock repaid the trust with interest and a flashing half-century. Philander, too, was promoted, and he responded with a fifty. The balance of the side was tweaked. Every move a winner.
Chris Morris, playing in just his third Test match, saw his first two deliveries being carted to the boundary by Joe Root. Seduced by the swinging delights on offer, an overly excited Morris was searching, bowling too short and trying to force the movement. He was trying to keep the boundaries down, not wanting to go for runs. After three overs, he had figures of 0 for 20 and du Plessis withdrew him from the attack. Du Plessis could see that Morris' mind was cluttered and spinning, overloaded with advice on how to best take advantage of the conditions, and took him aside as the players left the field for tea. Forget everything else, du Plessis said, just bowl bloody fast.
Morris came back and bowled bloody fast. Four overs into his next spell, his mind freed and his speed up, he claimed two wickets. After Moeen Ali shoveled one to point, Stuart Broad marched to the crease. Everyone in cricket knows what happened to Stuart Broad in August 2014. How, in the third Test against India at Old Trafford, a short ball from Varun Aaron smashed into the grill of his helmet and broke his nose. How he had nightmares and sought counselling in the months after. How his batting has suffered ever since. How almost every side has tried to bounce him out. Feed those greedy demons.
Elgar certainly knew. At Lord's, Elgar had three men out on the leg-side boundary for Broad while Morne Morkel bowled short. Broad proceeded to pull with unbridled ferocity, twice depositing the ball over the fence on his way to a brutal half-century.
What Elgar probably didn't know is that since breaking his nose, according to CricViz, Broad has averaged 74 against bouncers and 9.8 against half volleys. Du Plessis probably didn't know that either. South Africa didn't have a pre-meditated plan for Broad but, as he came out to bat, du Plessis signalled a trap so loudly it almost perforated eardrums. He set fielders at deep forward square leg, fine leg and leg gully. Here you go, buddy. Mind the nose.
Morris steamed in and fired the ball full and straight at the stumps, just as his captain desired. Leg before wicket. Bye bye Broady.
In the second innings, Alastair Cook fell victim to the reverse trap. Cook is one of the best players of fast-bowling in the world. He has hardly ever been out hooking. But du Plessis brought Morris, now brimming with confidence and oozing with the menace of jungle drum and bass rhythm, back into the attack and set two fielders at square leg and deep square leg, one virtually behind the other. It seemed absurd. England were chasing a record fourth-innings total for victory and they needed wickets in hand, not runs. Why would Cook, that renowned nudger and nurdler, be aggressive now? Morris chuntered in and launched a searing bouncer. Cook, perhaps acutely aware of the two fielders in place, hesitantly flailed at the ball as it whistled past his ear and into the glove of a diving de Kock. Cook out a-hooking. Who'd a-thunk it? Faf, natch.
Du Plessis is hardly omniscient or omnipotent, but obstinate and obdurate. He doesn't set funky fields - on the contrary, at times, considering the match situation, his fields could perhaps be interpreted as somewhat defensive and conservative. His currency is in grit and determination rather than gimmick and innovation. In between every delivery, he claps and circles his arms, imparting energy, a human wind farm. With every wicket, he bounces in and showers his bowlers with all the affection of a Labrador deprived of its owner for a week.
While he is clearly his own man, there is room for outside influence. In the over after Morkel had convinced du Plessis to review - unsuccessfully - an lbw appeal for Cook in the second innings, Philander was equally adamant when the ball cannoned in to Gary Ballance's pad. One review down, du Plessis was not convinced. He questioned his bowler at length before turning to de Kock, who insisted the ball had pitched in line. Du Plessis likes to trust his own opinion on reviews but he estimates de Kock is right 70% of the time. Review taken. Ballance tipped.
It seems the only thing that could possibly put pressure on du Plessis is his relatively modest returns with the bat. He has scored two centuries in the 12 Tests of his captaincy, although he has finished not-out on five occasions. While he averages 44.78 in Tests (but a more impressive 55.06 since becoming captain), he isn't exactly the most fluid and entertaining batsman to watch. Less swash and more buckle down, boys. The irony here is that du Plessis' signature blockability is exactly what England so desperately needed with six sessions remaining to save the match. Australian cricket fans still shudder at the memory of a shattered Peter Siddle, in Adelaide, dropping to his haunches in utter exhaustion before schlepping back to his mark, again and again, breaking himself on a steely du Plessis with all the futility of a wave trying to smash a granite shore. Twice since taking over the captaincy, has du Plessis remained not out in salvaging a draw.
At the close of play after levelling the series, du Plessis spoke of how he felt South Africa needed to rediscover the character and intensity he thought was missing at Lord's. They found both, in joyful abundance, in Nottingham.
But, perhaps, the most telling image that explains the early success of the du Plessis era isn't to be found at Trent Bridge. And, ironically, it's a picture that contains every player in the squad except for the skipper. In Melbourne, after charges of ball-tampering that were ultimately upheld, the entire South African team fronted a press conference and, led by Amla, affirmed their unswerving support for their captain while du Plessis quietly stood to one side. It was the players' idea and desire to make a public display of unity: going in to bat for their captain off the field as well as on it.
It provided a powerful image and a telling one. Du Plessis has won this dressing room.
And South Africa have won the Test.
Truly, madly, deeply.
And in four days, to boot.
Faf's back, baby. Faf's back.
Melinda Farrell is a presenter with ESPNcricinfo