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Courtesy of Afrikaanse Hoër Seunskool (Afrikaans Boys High School)



By Johannes Myburgh


Imagine a team coming from behind -- way behind -- to win a match that will go down in history. Imagine being the virtually unknown player who wins the glory. Faf du Plessis did just that in a cricket match that saw world number one South Africa beat Australia this week.

Others may have been surprised, but I expected nothing less, having seen him play when he was a senior at my boarding school. Indeed, now that I’m a journalist I find myself in the delightful, albeit somewhat strange, position of reporting the sporting exploits of the goofy schoolboy with the unkempt hair who used to lord over our dorm and breakup illicit games of hallway cricket.

So here’s how the match unfolded: South Africa’s ‘Proteas’ -- nicknamed after a native flower -- played three tests down under. After drawing the first, they were well on their way to losing the second (and their world title).

Then debut batsman Du Plessis stepped up to the crease and hit a century. The 28-year-old faced close to 400 balls over eight hours in the scorching Australian sun to pull the team back from certain defeat to a draw. His 110 runs not out was only the second time a South African has ever scored a century in his maiden match.

For the uninitiated, this is the equivalent of Andres Iniesta's extra time goal that handed Spain the 2010 World Cup title, or US football rookie Timmy Smith’s record-breaking 204 yards on 22 carries in Superbowl XXII. It was instant history.

South Africa won the last test by 309 runs, clinching the series 1-0 and remaining the top-ranked team in the world. They wouldn't have been able to do that without Faf and AB de Villiers, his teammate -- and another old school chum.

AB de Villiers raises his bat after bringing home a century on day three of the third cricket Test between South Africa and Australia at the WACA ground in Perth on December 2, 2012.
AFP PHOTO/Greg Wood

Most people have probably never actually seen Her Majesty's Great Game. Cricket spread from England to the British empire and today enjoys broad popularity across most former colonies. Great cricketing nations include India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, the West Indies, Australia, and, of course, South Africa.

The rules are not as complicated as they may seem. Two teams compete with a bat and a ball. The team with the bat has to try to hit the ball as far as possible to score runs. Their opponents try to limit the number of runs. Each side faces a predetermined number of overs, or series of six balls. When all the batsmen of the one side have played or all the balls are up, the other team has a go. Whoever has most runs in the end wins.

Or, as one wit once put it, “one team is in and the other is out, and they have to get the first team out and then go in, until they're all out.”

Compared to most professional sports, cricket is a leisurely game. Twenty-over matches (120 balls a side) are quite fast-paced and wrap up in a few hours. But fifty-over matches take all day, and a test series stretches over a few days. There are regular breaks, notably the very English pause for late afternoon high tea.

South Africa's Faf du Plessis defends a ball from Australia's Peter Siddle on the fifth day of the second cricket Test match at the Adelaide Oval on November 26, 2012.
AFP PHOTO/David Mariuz

The game caught on in South Africa’s Afrikaans-speaking community despite their historical animosity toward the English. Likewise at our school, Afrikaanse Hoër Seunskool (Afrikaans Boys High School).

Many farm-based families sent their sons to Affies' starting in the 1920s, and thousands of Afrikaans boys have since gone through the colonial-style red brick buildings in the heart of the capital Pretoria to become successful politicians, businessmen ... and sport stars.

During their years at Affies from 1998 to 2002, Faf du Plessis and AB de Villiers were popular even among non-cricket enthusiasts. Both played for the school's first cricket team when they were only 15. The team captain, Jacques Rudolph, also starred for the Proteas in the recent Australia test series.

At school assemblies, we heard time and again that Faf or AB had hit a century against some hapless opponent. Even then I suspected they would go on to do great things.

Faf -- pronounced “Fuff” -- is a shortened version of the bloke's real name, Francois. I wouldn't be surprised if that's how he said it himself as a kid, and it stuck. He always seemed a bit sleepy, like he'd just woken up. Faf was quite the Casanova at the girls school across the road. Always better at hitting balls than the books, Faf became a professional cricketer at 16. After school he played for Nottinghamshire and Lancashire counties in England, and a local outfit called the Titans.

AB -- alias Abraham Benjamin -- was an all-around sportsman. Besides cricket, he played A-team hockey, first team rugby and he still has a mean golf swing. He, too, was spotted whispering sweet nothings in a girl's ear at the church between our two schools. Odd how couples suddenly became devout when they started going out.

AB de Villiers (R) speaks with Faf du Plessis on the fifth day of the second cricket test match against Australia in Adelaide on November 26, 2012.
AFP PHOTO/David Mariuz

I was a scared 13-year-old from the Johannesburg suburbs when I first encountered the boarding school's imposing buildings and it’s 1,200 raucous adolescent boys in full-blown puberty. In my first year, I shared a massive dorm-room with 13 others.

Faf and AB became hostel prefects at the end of my first year. Unsure in their new leadership positions, they were endearingly clumsy with the rowdy 300 juniors under their wing. And boy, did we give them hell. The rules forbade indoor ball games, but few could resist dorm cricket -- using tennis balls -- in the narrow room with the old wooden floors. Sometimes stuff got broken. Poor Faf and AB then had to shout down the boisterous play only a few months after they'd been the instigators of such mischief!

The two remained friends over the years. In 2010 AB released a pop album, called "Maak jou Drome Waar" ("Make your Dreams Come True"), with a cheesy music video that starred none other than Faf.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G-RSj4RXy2Y

After school they dropped off the radar for a few years until their names popped up in international sports news.

It’s not the fastest game to cover as a journalist, and you need patience to see a strategy unfold over hours. It becomes a bit like a drawn-out war, with the reporter the correspondent. Bouts of quiet play will suddenly burst into fast action, a run, a catch, an “owzaaaaatt!” when the fielding team appeals to the umpire to give out to the batsman. It gets even more interesting when you know the players.

AB has developed into a sterling batsman himself, and Faf’s elegant swing that sends the ball over the boundary is just … beautiful.

And of course the rest of us gun for glory by association. After all, AB does vaguely recognise me on the street.

South African batsman Faf Du Plessis plays a shot during the three-day cricket tour match between Australia 'A' and South Africa at the Sydney Cricket Ground on November 4, 2012
AFP PHOTO/Greg Wood