When you type Faf on your phone, it autocorrects to Dad. Sometimes, the joke literally writes itself.
On Friday, when he played his 100th game for Chennai Super Kings, there were times when Faf du Plessis looked a little like Dad du Plessis. By the time Super Kings’ innings was into its final stages, he was doubling over to catch his breath after running twos, and when he swung at slower balls, he swung with tired legs and a wobbly base, and struggled to impart the power he desired.
This, of course, was mostly because du Plessis batted through the Super Kings innings on a 36-degree day in Dubai, but let’s stay with the dad narrative for a bit. du Plessis was one of five over-35s in the Super Kings XI, and one of four players to have played at least 100 games for the franchise. Another player who fulfilled both those criteria was sitting in the dugout.
As the 2021 IPL final approached its end, and as Super Kings closed in on their fourth title, an era seemed to be ending. MS Dhoni, Suresh Raina, Dwayne Bravo, Ravindra Jadeja, du Plessis. One or more of them could still be in yellow next season, but never again all of them, together.
A mega auction is around the corner, and with the tournament set to feature two extra teams, it’s unlikely Super Kings will be able to reassemble a squad full of familiar faces as they’ve done on previous occasions. And it’s unclear whether they’ll want to, given that these players were already being called Dad’s Army when Super Kings reunited them at the 2018 auction.
“Well, look, maybe. We don’t know,” Stephen Fleming, the Super Kings head coach, said at his post-match press conference, when asked if this was indeed the end of an era. “Yeah, there is emotion around it. Whenever you get to the end of [an auction] cycle you’re not going to get some players back. There is some emotion around these last games, and when you win it it’s a celebration but also a recognition of what players have put in.
“Chennai has always had a system, or a belief that if you can maintain players and keep them with you for a long time, you get the best out of them, and yeah, there are some players here that have been with us for a long time, and it’ll be interesting to see over the next few months how it pans out. Most teams are probably going to have a bit of change to them, and we will be one, but how that looks like, it’s too early to tell.”
It must be gutting for a coach to have to disassemble a group of players that he knows this well. It’ll be especially hard given that they’ve reached three finals and won two titles in this four-year auction cycle. All teams go through transitions, but the IPL demands transitions more abrupt than in any other league.
There’s a chance, therefore, that du Plessis may never play for Super Kings again – this after scoring over 600 runs this season and ending it with a match-winning 86 in the final.
If this was his final innings in yellow, it was quite a sign-off. Before fatigue slowed him down – he only scored 34 off his last 24 balls – he had played his specific role in the top order to perfection, and the batters around him had played theirs just as well.
Over the last two seasons, du Plessis has been Super Kings’ designated pace hitter in the top order, striking at 154.45 against the quicker bowlers and at 109.19 against spin. Their other top-order batters in this time have all tended to score significantly quicker against spin than pace.
On Friday, du Plessis took down Kolkata Knight Riders’ main pace threat, hitting Lockie Ferguson for 40 off 16 balls. He only managed 29 off 29 against Knight Riders’ three spinners, but the rest of the top order took care of that part of the job, with Ruturaj Gaikwad, Robin Uthappa and Moeen Ali taking a collective 66 off 38 balls against Shakib Al Hasan, Sunil Narine and Varun Chakravarthy.
Had Knight Riders’ chase not fizzled out like it did, this piece may have been obliged to look at du Plessis’ late slowdown with a critical eye. But Super Kings won, and won convincingly, so we can put the result aside and talk about the pleasure of watching him bat.
Rewind to the 11th over of Super Kings’ innings – specifically the third ball of the over. This is one of those days when nothing goes right for Ferguson, and this ball isn’t a good one. It’s shortish and it’s wide, and du Plessis puts it away like he should, but not quite like most batters would. Rather than slap it through point, du Plessis shifts his left leg away from leg stump, opens up at the hip, and hits a flat-bat drive over extra-cover. The ball clocks 147.6kph, and he hits it like an inside-out Andre Agassi forehand, meeting the ball early and well in front of his body, using his hips to generate power.
It’s the shot of an unusually bottom-handed player, and he plays another soon after, a drive for six over long-off, with his bat twisting in his grip. You’d think it’s a mis-hit if it were anyone else, but you’ve watched du Plessis hundreds of times and this is how he drives. It’s idiosyncratic, and you might even call it ungainly, but it’s full of the warmth of the familiar.
As the match goes on, these moments keep coming. Dhoni collects a ball down the leg side, and almost in the same motion passes it to mid-on with a mighty underarm flick. Jadeja raps Shakib on the front pad and sets off towards square leg in celebrappeal. You’ve seen them do these things a thousand times, but now you’ve properly noticed them.
And noticing these things only reminds you more forcefully of their transience.