After a tumultuous week where he became the ultimate pantomime villain in Australia, Faf du Plessis, the South Africa captain, drowned out the reverberating cacophony with a brilliant unbeaten century on the third Test’s opening day against Australia in Adelaide.
Du Plessis, who has been a marked man after footage emerged of him ball-tampering during the second Test, scored a 164-ball 118 to be the backbone of South Africa’s 250 for 9 declared. Du Plessis called a halt to South Africa’s innings after 76 overs in a bid to bowl under lights at Australia’s new-look and inexperienced batting line-up before stumps. In reply, a more determined Australia remained unscathed and reached stumps at 14 for 0 from 12 overs.
Australia’s batting makeover underwent another tweak with David Warner unable to open the innings due to being off the ground with a sore shoulder at the end of South Africa’s innings. It meant No. 3 Usman Khawaja had to accompany 20-year-old debutant Matt Renshaw to the crease.
Australia has been relentlessly criticised for continued meek batting performances and, perhaps signalling a new-found approach, Renshaw (3 off 39 balls) and Khawaja (8 from 34 deliveries) opted to grind and defend tenaciously in tough conditions under lights.
Underlying a more sedate game plan, no runs were scored off the bat in the opening six overs and Renshaw finally opened his Test account with a boundary off a leg glance on the 19th ball he faced.
After South Africa won the toss and elected to bat on a grassy pitch, Australia sought to rid the apparitions of recent nightmarish performances by taking wickets with the pink ball. Through relentless bowling from spearheads Josh Hazelwood (4 for 68) and Mitchell Starc (2 for 78), they did exactly that although not initially.
South African opener Stephen Cook, whose horrendous series has seen him become essentially a walking wicket, was trapped plumb in front by a searing full delivery from Starc but the decision was overturned when replays confirmed the left-armer had overstepped. Despite that setback, Australia soon had a slew of wickets, kick-started with Dean Elgar (5) nicking Starc, while Hashim Amla’s poor series continued when he was well caught at first slip by Renshaw. Amla made just five boosting his tally to a measly 53 runs for the series – 47 of which came in one innings.
Starc and Hazelwood menaced as the pink ball moved around sharply, although not wickedly like in the inaugural day-night Test 12 months ago. Hazelwood got in the act by removing JP Duminy as South Africa slumped to 44 for 3 and in major strife of being routed.
Du Plessis, who has become public enemy No. 1, came out to a chorus of boos but the reverberating discontent appeared to steel him. Unlike his teammates, du Plessis was unruffled by the hooping pink ball and counter-attacked impressively. Du Plessis pounced on anything wide and his sound technique ensured he curbed even the most threatening deliveries. He combined in an important 51-run fourth partnership with Cook, who was trying to notch a decent score after a horrid series.
Cook wasn’t playing particularly attractively but his grinding deserved plaudits, as he dug in against adversity to make it to the tea break – the old lunch break – with his wicket intact. Unfortunately for the opener, the intermission interrupted his growing momentum as he struggled straight after the resumption and eventually he edged Hazelwood to Steve Smith at second slip to end his 99-ball 40.
Hazelwood starred in the second session with the wickets of Quinton de Kock (24) and Vernon Philander (4) to leave South Africa in tatters at 161 for 7. Jackson Bird, recalled after being surprisingly overlooked for the opening two Tests, struggled for his rhythm early but picked up the valuable wickets of Temba Bavuma (8) and Kyle Abbott (17).
However, du Plessis remained defiant and scored a brilliant sixth century to continue his love affair with the Adelaide Oval, four years after his match-saving heroics at the same ground. His brilliance, and handy partnerships with the tail, has ensured South Africa remain on track to inflict Australia with their first ever series whitewash on home soil.
Brief scores: South Africa 259/9 decl. (Faf du Plessis 118*, Stephen Cook 40; Josh Hazlewood 4-68, Jackson Bird 2-57, Mitchell Starc 2-78) lead Australia 14/0 (Matt Renshaw 8*) by 245 runs.