Faf du Plessis’ decision to declare didn’t affect the outcome of the result. Instead, it showed a brave, new South Africa.
Think back to December 2013 at the Wanderers against India. The Proteas were closing in on the greatest run chase in Test history. Sixteen runs were needed off the final two overs and there were three wickets in hand. Do you go for the draw, or do you go down in the history books forever? They chose the former. Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander blocked out 11 balls, before Steyn smacked the last one for six. They were eight runs short. It was a draw.
Everyone watching was pulling their hair out, because you couldn’t exactly be disappointed with them. Batting out 136 overs in the fourth innings against India is worthy of celebration. But they will die wondering, and that’s not something you’ll see from the Proteas today. That’s why I enjoyed that declaration so much.
At the time, Du Plessis’ declaration on 259-9 was based on several key decisions, and all of them were calculated. Tabraiz Shamsi was hitting out and was unlikely to hang around, and batting against the new ball in the final session is never an easy prospect, giving the Proteas 12 overs to have a go under lights.
The best part about it, though, was that Faf used an unusual but crucial bit of information to try to make it work in his favour. He overheard the umpires telling skipper Steve Smith that, should the Proteas have ended their innings at that very moment, David Warner would be unable to open the batting due to being off the field for too long. Faf went for it, and Warner had to bat at No 3.
That forced the Australians to change their game plan. Test cricket is a tactical game – sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t – and that’s what Test cricket is all about. Taking the risks, making the big decisions, and backing your team to do the rest.
Of course, in this instance, it didn’t work out. Usman Khawaja was in splendid form. Shane Warne went so far as to say it was ‘the best century I’ve seen from an Australian for years’. Khawaja stepped up to the makeshift situation and got a match-winning 145. The Proteas couldn’t have foreseen how well he would play. It’s worth noting that David Warner scored only 11 coming in at first drop.
When Faf made that declaration though, you could see how well it was received in the pavilion. Among all the media hype involving the ball tampering allegations and the chorus of boos that surrounded Faf when he walked out to bat, his response was world-class. He backed up his century with a huge captaincy decision, and his players loved it. They came out firing in those 12 overs, but Matt Renshaw and Khawaja were up to the task, so credit to them.
The declaration was merely a drop in the ocean of the way the Proteas went about their cricket across the three Tests. Their positive, spirited brand of cricket is something that’s been lacking for a while. Whether or not Faf will, or should be, the skipper is for another discussion. But that declaration was symbolic of the way he wants to go about his cricket, and it was great to see.