AS THE tension became almost unbearable in Adelaide, Faf du Plessis sidled up to his batting partner Morne Morkel, imploring him to simply keep playing straight. The tall fast bowler replied: ''Don't worry, I've got this.''
Whether he believed it at the time or not, Morkel was right, surviving a final over of high drama to complete a miraculous draw for South Africa in the second Test. However, it was the first-gamer at the other end who was the hero among heroes.
Du Plessis tripped and lost a shoe while walking down the stairs to make his Test batting debut earlier in the match. He was that anxious. On Monday he held his nerve for a full day, fighting through cramp in the last hour, mixed emotions in the lead-up to a maiden hundred, and a constant verbal barrage from Australia's fieldsmen.
Worthy of a salute … Faf du Plessis batted the entire final day, enduring physical and mental toil to ensure South Africa escaped from the Adelaide Oval with a draw with two wickets in hand. Photo: AP
The narrative did not go missing on the 28-year-old from Pretoria, who said batting through the pain barrier, and the photo finish, made his moment in the sun all the more sweet.
''The story wouldn't have been that nice if my body was all feeling fine,'' du Plessis said. ''So now, one day when I look back, I can say, 'I pushed through the physical side of things'. It just shows you how far you can go if you're mentally strong enough. Probably the last hour or so I just started cramping a bit. They [Australia] saw it as me wasting time but it was just me trying to get some fluids in.''
Over eight hours stretching back to Sunday afternoon du Plessis - real first name Francois - showed indescribable spirit. His unbeaten 110 was compiled from 376 balls and came not without luck or trepidation, particularly in the final over, when all he could do was watch. He has scrapped for years on the South African first-class scene, playing a few dozen one-day internationals in the process, so this was some kind of arrival.
Second Test, final day
Match-saver Faf du Plessis (78 and 110 not out) shakes hands with Australian captain Michael Clarke (230). Photo: Getty images
When Morkel strode to the middle with 13 minutes remaining, South Africa had only one more batsman to come, the genuine No.11 Imran Tahir. Not only did Morkel hang on, but he drove an exhausted Peter Siddle for two boundaries in the final over for good measure.
''It just makes it so much better the fact that it was so close,'' du Plessis said. ''Just when I think one guy is playing the bowlers very well, we'd lose a wicket, and then it will happen again.
''Morne, you could see, was a little bit nervous coming in, but 'Haydos', as we call him, played some serious straight drives at the end there. I just tried to keep him calm because I know it's tough for a tailender coming in.
"There was so many emotions going through me" ... Faf du Plessis. Photo: Getty Images
''You know if you get out you're carrying that weight of the whole nation on your shoulders. But Morne, he played beautifully. I actually said, 'Just keep playing straight' and he said, 'Don't worry, I've got this'.''
Playing the Test only due to the Achilles injury sustained by J.P. Duminy in Brisbane, du Plessis had made an important 78 in South Africa's first innings. As he approached three figures on Monday he battled to compose himself and consider the dual motives - to post a hundred, and to simply survive - running through his mind.
''In the 90s I was going through a lot of emotions,'' he said. ''I had goosebumps … It's the record for the longest goosebumps ever. I just said to myself, 'Don't think too much of your hundred, just let it come to you. The team wants you to be defensive here and be solid and just wait for it'. It felt like forever. At 96, I went through a stage where I thought, 'I'm one boundary away from getting a hundred so please bowl me a half-volley'. I quickly realised that it doesn't work like that in Test cricket.''
During his marathon innings, which evoked memories of Michael Atherton's epic match-saving performance for England in Johannesburg in 1995, he batted and bunted at length with former schoolmate A.B. de Villiers and an injured Jacques Kallis before the tail. He said they provided invaluable wisdom, particularly as Australia resorted to psychological ploys to get inside his head.
''I was surprised. Compared to yesterday and today they didn't stop for five minutes,'' du Plessis said. ''They just kept chatting in my ear the whole day. But we'd have done the same thing.
''They were fighting firstly, and then they were getting frustrated that they couldn't get us out.''
The key to his whole amazing adventure, it turned out, might have come right back on Sunday afternoon, when he walked out to bat.
''The second innings,'' he said, ''I took my time coming down the stairs.''