Joe Root survived one chance but not a second one, and Ben Stokes fell just before stumps, as England finished the first day of the fourth and final test against South Africa on 260-6 on Friday (Saturday NZT).
Du Plessis is eager to play a big part himself after a disappointing Test at the Oval where he managed just 1 run in two innings.
The match was relatively evenly poised when Temba Bavuma, batting in his new position of No. 4, and Faf du Plessis took the total well past the 100 mark for the loss only three wickets.
South Africa were 93/3, or 269 runs behind England's first innings of 362.
Although South Africa, trailing 2-1 and seeking to save the series, edged the day by virtue of their six wickets, a score in excess of 300 by England could be competitive on a feisty pitch that gave the Proteas quick bowlers plenty to work with. Sri Lanka will also be without all-rounder Asela Gunaratne who was unable to bat in either innings after breaking a finger in the first Test and will miss the rest of the series.
After several overs of determined defence, a mix-up almost saw Bavuma run out only for bowler Moeen Ali to miss the stumps as he gathered a throw from mid-off.
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Moeen got involved, tempting Heino Kuhn forward and the opener edging to Ben Stokes.
Bairstow had a let-off when he was given out for four, caught at slip by Dean Elgar off Maharaj though replays indicated the ball had bounced before Elgar claimed the catch and Bairstow was duly reprieved.
"Vernon is going to go through a fitness test today - he's got a tight back, but he should be okay", said Du Plessis, who reasons that if Philander is even marginally inconvenienced the balance of South Africa's team may well have to change.
Dropped on 53 by opposing wicket-keeper Quinton de Kock, when he only had last man Anderson for company, Bairstow faced 145 balls with 14 fours and a six. His most productive scoring area, unusually for the first morning of a Test match, was straight down the ground, where he twice placed fractionally overpitched deliveries from Morkel and Olivier with dead-eyed timing.
Moeen completed his hat-trick with the first ball of his next over, although he had to wait for a review to confirm he had trapped Morkel lbw. Bowling from his own end, newly named in his honour the previous day, England's all-time leading wicket-taker updated his previous Old Trafford Test best figures of four for 118 - modest by his standards - against New Zealand in 2008 with four for 33 so far.
Bairstow's dominance of that half-century last-wicket stand was illustrated by the fact he scored 46 of the runs and exposed Anderson to just 15 of the final 55 balls of the innings.