Authors: Rio Sports
Within the space of a year Faf du Plessis has gone from being punished by the International Cricket Council for dabbing some minty saliva on a ball in a Test to leading out their World XI as the governing body brings back top-level cricket to Pakistan.
Since the terrorist attack on the Sri Lanka team bus in Lahore in 2009, when two civilians and six police officers were killed, only Zimbabwe have visited the country out of the 10 Test playing nations. It has left one of cricket’s most wondrous crucibles of talent without live action at home while the national team play either away or at neutral venues.
The hope now from the ICC, after the successful staging of the Pakistan Super League final in March, is the three-match Twenty20 series against their World XI this week, led by South African’s impressive captain, will encourage more teams to visit (Sri Lanka and West Indies have pencilled in fixtures) and keep the sport’s flame burning in a country starved of seeing their heroes in the flesh.
“I’d like to look back at the end of my career and think I did something that made an impact on people’s lives,” Du Plessis tells the from the team bus in Dubai on Sunday evening before their arrival in Lahore in the early hours of Monday morning.
“I can’t imagine being a youngster and not seeing my heroes play in person and so me and the players understand we’re playing for something a lot bigger than us.”
Du Plessis, whose 14-man squad include his international team-mates, Hashim Amla and Morne Morkel, as well as England’s World Twenty20-winning captain, Paul Collingwood, had initially declined the trip, only for the silver tongue of the World XI’s coach, Andy Flower, and a suitable gap in a hectic schedule to persuade him otherwise.
Security was the main hurdle to overcome. Lahore remains volatile, such that just last month a bomb in the eastern part of the city claimed 26 lives. Accordingly the matches at the Gaddafi Stadium, starting on Tuesday, are being played amid a vast military presence, with more than 1,000 commandos protecting the hotel alone.
Tickets are bought in local banks and then redeemed at the stadium using biometric testing to confirm identities, while roads will be closed. The number of security personnel has been reported as more than 10,000 – around a third of supporters expected for each of the sellout matches.
A £75,000-a-man tour fee is being paid to the World XI players – Du Plessis believes the figure was needed to attract the high-quality talent on show – and now they must try to put aside the whirring helicopters and the snipers on the roof and concentrate on cricket at hand in matches that have full international status, thus making them a comeback of sorts for the retired Collingwood.
“You’ve just got to try to somehow put that to the back of your mind and watch the ball,” Du Plessis says. “Every question about security has been answered. I only found out today the games are official but even if they weren’t, it wouldn’t affect why we are here.”
Blocking out peripheral noise is something Du Plessis has previous for – albeit on a lesser scale – when during South Africa’s 2-1 Test victory in Australia last November he found himself amid an almighty storm. Caught on camera applying a touch of sugary spit from a mint to a ball in the second Test, Du Plessis was charged with ball-tampering not by the match referee but by the ICC chief executive, Dave Richardson.
Du Plessis’s response to a week of white heat from the Australian press and some argy-bargy with a TV reporter in Adelaide airport – “it was hilarious really” Du Plessis recalls – was a gimlet-eyed century in the third Test. Although he was fined 100% of his match fee and given points on his record, his rock-steady leadership both at the time and subsequently is perhaps why Flower would not relent in getting his World XI captain.
“Every time you captain, it’s a nice recognition and personally I saw this trip as an opportunity to captain different personalities and nationalities and learn from them,” says Du Plessis, who after Friday’s finale heads back to South Africa to begin preparations for their Test series against Bangladesh.
He will link up with a new coach on his return, with Ottis Gibson having signed off from his second spell in charge of England’s bowlers to take over the Proteas. “I’m really excited, there is always anticipation ahead of a new start. The word on the street is he’s very good. Anyone that can add value to me as a captain and a player, to help me grow with my bowlers, is welcome.”
While Du Plessis’s best friend, AB de Villiers, has announced a return to Test cricket after an 18-month sabbatical, albeit once Bangladesh are out of the way, South Africa continue to battle against players being lured into Kolpak deals in county cricket, as occurred at the start of the year when the seamer Kyle Abbott and the batsman Rilee Rossouw swapped international careers for Hampshire.
Amla and Morkel, in Lahore with the World XI, have been linked with similar retirements but Du Plessis has had personal assurances from the pair it is untrue. “They have decided to stick around and it’s a bit of a relief because they are high-quality cricketers. It’s always possible with our players and things can change. And as I said before with Kyle and Rilee, they aren’t being nasty to the team, they are just looking after their futures.”
Discussing such matters or predictions for the Ashes – “both teams have two or three batting spots yet to be nailed down but while I feel you can put Australia under pressure with early wickets, England’s all-rounders just keep coming at you” – feels a touch trivial but perhaps a welcome distraction from the “movie set” Du Plessis is expecting on arrival.
he pictures beamed back from Lahore as the team arrive at the airport after our call, before travelling to the team hotel amid a 26-car motorcade along closed roads, highlight the incredible operation involved in getting international cricket back to Pakistan.
“It’s a huge honour to be here as it’s not often when you are playing cricket in a cause which is much bigger than the game,” Du Plessis tells a press conference later in the day.
“As a professional, numerous factors played their part. Money was one of them but what really convinced me was that as a sportsman you want to leave your footprint on the game.”
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