There were Vernon Philander's impeccable lines, Hashim Amla's steady defence, Keshav Maharaj's uncanny turn and Chris Morris' irresistible pace. But behind the scenes of a spectacular 340-run drubbing was a man who is increasingly earning a reputation as a true leader and inspirational guide, Faf du Plessis.
Such is the aura he generates that his mere presence was enough for South Africa's bowlers to put in their best show at Lord's (in England's second innings). There is a buzz around England now that there is a 'Faf factor' in South Africa's resurgence from the ashes in Trent Bridge. They had looked confused, unprepared, clumsy and characterless at Lord's. But all it took was the return of their favourite skipper to trigger a change. Du Plessis had spoken about looking into the 'non-negotiables' after South Africa put down catches and delivered no-balls at Lord's.
He did address those problems and several others as his men produced a near flawless performance that pushed England to their seventh defeat in the last ten Tests. This South African team did not have their strike bowler, Kagiso Rabada, but du Plessis wasn't bothered and made use of what was available in the best possible manner.
In the tour Down Under as well, du Plessis lost Dale Steyn mid-way through the Perth Test and Morne Morkel wasn't available. However, there was little sign of frustration or anger in du Plessis as he moved past the injury to quickly switch to a Plan B. That is what leaders do better than captains. Both always have a Plan B. But to seize the right moment and make the switch to the new plan is something leaders do better than captains. Faf du Plessis does it better than most men out there. He has been a huge factor in South Africa's rise from the lower half of the ICC rankings tables after the Indian tour. He has inspired, cajoled and propelled his troops. There were several instances of his tactical nous coming to the fore in South Africa's victory at Trent Bridge.
Dropping JP Duminy and adding the extra bowler
It takes something to drop an experienced player, even more so when he is your dear friend. But du Plessis had no qualms in admitting that Duminy has been way below his best in recent years. He even pointed out that Duminy would himself know that his place is under sever scrutiny. Not only did he drop Duminy but also added an extra all-rounder in Chris Morris.
The move not only released the pressure on young Duanne Olivier but also reduced the responsibility on Vernon Philander and Morne Morkel. It took some courage to shorten the batting line-up with his side 1-0 down in the series. But du Plessis was adamant and knew exactly what he wanted.
Chris Morris versus Mark Wood
Just how good du Plessis was as skipper can be understood from his handling of Chris Morris. The all-rounder and Olivier were greeted with some fabulous shots by Joe Root in the first innings. Morris went for 20 in his first three and seemed over-excited by the swing on offer. Du Plessis walked upto him in the lunch break and asked him to just concentrate on bowling fast. The result? The tail was cleaned up by Morris with his fiery pace.
Joe Root had a similar X-factor bowler in Mark Wood but never once did the out and out fast bowler look threatening in the game. More than his ineffectiveness, it was Root's apparent ignorance of Wood that was appalling. A fast bowler loves to know that his captain trusts him and Root failed in this regard.
Du Plessis further established his man-management skills by giving Morris the ball when Root walked out to bat in the second innings. It was a teaser of sorts. Root had lambasted him out of the attack in the first innings. But with a mammoth target to chase down, Morris had the luxury to concentrate in his skills rather than leaking runs. What ensued was a thriller. The all-rounder broke through Root's stumps with a well-directed yorker and followed with a bang-on bouncer to send back Alastair Cook.
Keshav Maharaj's role
Du Plessis was largely responsible for Maharaj's sensational spell in the first innings that got rid of Ben Stokes and Johnny Bairstow. With Rabada unavailable, du Plessis had to turn to someone to do the bulk of the attacking job. He had Olivier, Morris and Morkel to do that. But bizzarely, he handed the job to a spinner on a green track. Surely, it wasn't going to work. It did. Maharaj teased Stokes into a mistake and then bamboozled Bairstow with a dream delivery to derail England's innings.
Promoting Quinton de Kock
Just before the Trent Bridge Test, Quinton de Kock had spoken about wanting to bat higher up the order. The wicket-keeper batsman has been one of South Africa's best players in Test cricket in the past one year and using him at Number 7 was a waste of his talent. Although keeping and then batting in the top five is hectic work, de Kock felt he could manage the load.
Du Plessis was quick to recognise that and moved de Kock up the order while bringing in Morris and Philander in the lower order. The move paid rich dividends as de Kock played a stunning counter-attacking knock in the first innings. He also inspired Amla and the veteran batsman spurred on once de Kock had given him that much needed push.
Learning from mistakes
A leader is always quick to learn from his mistakes and correct it on the go. When Root took a liking to Morris and Olivier, the duo were bowling in tandem and what they fed seemed fodder for Root's outrageous skills. du Plessis realised his mistake soon enough and never again bowled the duo together in the whole innings.
He, however, handled Morris brilliantly and cajoled him into bowling a dream spell in the second innings. Du Plessis also made sure that Olivier was made to feel as a part of the eleven although Rabada's return would keep him out of the next Test. He gave Olivier the ball with England virtually out of the contest and the tall seamer responded with two wickets.
It is not often that teams are bestowed with natural leaders and just after a few months at the helm, Du Plessis is quickly earning reputation as a tactical genius. That he is already being compared to the likes of Steve Waugh and Graeme Smith is testimony to how good he has been since taking over the mantle. Not only has he helped the team move past transformation targets and it's repurcussions but has also instilled a never before seen spirit in the team. It is evident that the Proteas love their captain.
They vehemently backed him during the mint-gate saga in Australia and spoke publicly about wanting him back as quickly as possible after the Lord's Test. It is safe to say that within an year of his appointment as Test skipper, du Plessis has totally earned the respect and love of a billion fans in cricket. Rock on, Faf!