Charmer to the core

Francois du Plessis has made the most of his three-year stint in England, improving his batting and overall game. Over to Arun Venugopal.

Francois du Plessis insists on a ‘knuckle bump' when I meet him for an interview. His strapping physique, in cahoots with spiked hair and turquoise-blue eyes, illustrates a rather compelling blend of brooding charm and vernal exuberance.

“I have been fortunate to get back into the mix,” begins ‘Faf' alluding to his inclusion in the South African team after being away for three years with a Kolpak deal.

The stint at Lancashire has helped him toughen up as a professional, stretching his contours beyond the cosy confines of his homeland.

“I got to play a lot of cricket in the county circuit, much more than what I would play back home. In a way, the amount of game time has helped me understand my batting from a fresh perspective.”

Exposure to spin-rich bowling attacks on different surfaces has yielded multiple rewards for du Plessis, not least a polished footwork. He harnessed the experience and translated that into consistent showings for the Titans in the MTN40 domestic competition last year. Du Plessis stacked up 567 runs from 10 matches, including three centuries, emerging as the tournament's top scorer.

“I was timing the ball well and that made me feel quite consfident about my batting overall,” says the right hander who will turn 27 this July.

The confidence wasn't lost on the selectors who fast-tracked him into the national side against India in January. du Plessis celebrated his inclusion with a well-paced 60 on debut and soon found himself on board for the World Cup in the sub-continent.

The Pretoria-born batsman had a reasonable outing, employing the sweep shot to good effect, although his team crashed out in the quarters. “It was disappointing, very disappointing. We had the game covered and it was just a question of applying ourselves,” rues du Plessis. “Anyway we have to put it behind us and focus on the future.”

As our conversation veers towards the hostile reactions in South Africa to Graeme Smith choosing not to return home immediately after the World Cup, Faf feels that “it was a tough situation” for the former captain to be in. “I really feel bad for him.”

du Plessis, who prefers to call himself a batting all-rounder, is a useful leg-spinner as well. His approach, though, is markedly different to his compatriot Imran Tahir, a leggie in the more conventional sense. “I am more in the Anil Kumble mould, quicker through the air.”

His maiden IPL season with two-time champions Chennai Super Kings has been “terrific”. “It's an amazing feeling to be part of a winning group. The guys in the dressing room have been very welcoming. Though I didn't get a chance to play, it's been a great learning opportunity.”

How has it been playing alongside the likes of Styris and other Kiwis in the team, players with whom he had a face-off during the tense World Cup quarterfinal clash. “We did have a few jokes about that,” du Plessis smiles wryly.

“Look, you have different perceptions of players when they are opponents,” he says striking a serious note. When you play together, you get to know so much more about them. That way, we have all bonded very well.”

Even as I prepare to wind up the interview, du Plessis insists on bidding me goodbye with another knuckle bump and flashes a warm smile.