South Africa, Sport

Cricket: We need to talk about Faf

By Antoinette Muller 16 November 2016

Faf du Plessis has emerged as a trump card captain both during the 5-0 whitewash of Australia in the one-day series on home soil and during the ongoing Test series Down Under. Many factors have impacted on South Africa’s resurgence but Du Plessis’ swagger can’t be ignored and he might have to sit down for an awkward conversation with his old mate upon his return. By ANTOINETTE MULLER.

Little over a year ago, the South African cricket team was stuck in a bit of a rut. Just 18 months earlier, Graeme Smith had called it a day and – not to toot our own horn, but we warned you of what was coming.

After Smith’s retirement, these pages mused: “It will only be in a few years’ time that South Africans will realise what they have lost, while crying into their Castle Lagers and desperately seeking a new scapegoat.”

Fast forward to February this year and the barley had come home to ferment. South Africa had been badly beaten by India on rank turners over in the subcontinent and woefully humiliated by England on home soil. Sure, they were missing a few of their key players, but much like the Australians in Hobart recently, they just never looked like they’d turned up.

The fall from grace was swift and hard, especially since the first few months after Smith’s retirement weren’t that bad. Hashim Amla, a perfectly good egg and immensely talented cricketer, led the side to its first Test series win in Sri Lanka in more than two decades.

The months following that ebbed and flowed, as most international sport does. But South Africa’s rise to the top of the Test rankings – a position they occupied for three years – was never characterised by ebbs and flows. It was underpinned by a ferocious consistency, a swagger instilled by the leadership group. Even when a few peeps suggested that the “clique” within the South African camp were a bunch of bullies, you couldn’t fault the team’s results. They were a bunch of bastards and you wouldn’t want to play against them, especially not away from home. Slowly, that aura started to slip away.

To pin the blame for that on one specific person or incident would be foolish. It was a culmination of dealing with the aftershocks of transition, combined with an unfortunate selection bungle that clearly affected the team more than any of them would ever care to admit. No one can fault Amla for deciding he’d had enough midway through England’s visit to the country. And no one can fault the blue-eyed boy of South African cricket for stepping up to take over immediately.

The ever-keen, blue-eyed boy of South African cricket immediately took over. At the time, it seemed a sensible decision. AB de Villiers had captained South Africa in one-day cricket for quite some time and, despite his ability to engineer new ways to fail to stick to the over rate, he’d done a fair enough job.

But fair enough was not good enough for a Test team like South Africa. And while we cannot judge De Villiers’ Test captaincy credentials too harshly – he’s only officially captained in two Tests with two completely opposite results – one man’s injury is often another’s opportunity at elite level sport.

In the current series against Australia, Faf du Plessis has emerged as something of a trump card. Winning so emphatically against a team in disarray helps, but the manner in which he has conducted himself – and the way in which he has pulled the team together – has certainly piqued the interest of many armchair pundits.

When Smith left and the decision to appoint his successor had to be made, Du Plessis emerged as an outside option. He had captaincy credentials, but he didn’t look like a captain. Neither did De Villiers or Amla, so we can only guestimate that the decision was eventually made by using one of those triangle-shaped fortune tellers.

In the months that followed, though, Du Plessis grew up. In January he was out of favour in the Test team. Now he seems irreplaceable.

Du Plessis is a bastard on the field. But he’s South Africa’s bastard. And he’s a fiercely competitive bastard. He’s one of those annoying people who take even a game of warm-up soccer seriously. It does not mean he is flawless. But Du Plessis has balls. Massive ones. And after the hell that was the last 18 months, that’s exactly what the team needed. Du Plessis’ balls are so big, he gets charged extra luggage when he flies. From choosing to bowl under cloudy skies to trusting a complete rookie spinner with an attacking field and somehow finding a way to bring cohesion to a team that looked utterly dreadful on the opening day of the first Test.

While the resurgence under Du Plessis has coincided with the return of Dale Steyn (for a few overs) and the appointment of Neil McKenzie as batting coach and a camp before the New Zealand series to do a bit soul searching and team building, he struts with the same swagger as old Biff, if a little bit more stylishly.

He is not afraid to be a bit brash in press conferences and does not skirt around issues, unlike De Villiers. When Amla was left out of the one-day team in during the series against Australia, despite having recovered from illness, Du Plessis made it clear that he wasn’t happy with the move. You can hardly imagine De Villiers saying anything like this – he always comes across as if he doesn’t want to step on anyone’s toes. And, when the going gets tough, De Villiers almost wholly blames himself. He is the perfect prototype for Stepford Media Training, something all sportsmen undergo these days.

But sporting success is rarely built on passive, Stepford boxes. It thrives under the thumb of ruthless bastards who will make the opposition wish he or she played for them. The best leaders aren’t always the most talented players either. Good leadership in sport is defined by a ferociously competitive athlete finding a way to convince others they are just as competitive, instead of feeling like you have to do everything yourself, a burden the freakishly talented often carry.

Du Plessis has embodied all of these characteristics across the two series – in two different formats. It’s been noted, but quoted chief selector Linda Zondi this week as saying that for the time being, De Villiers is still very much in charge.

We are very happy for Faf as the stand-in captain, but AB is still the captain. It gives us options, we know we have leaders within the squad, there is Hashim, too, and Faf has shown great leadership qualities,” Zondi said.

But let’s not read too much into that. It’s a quote straight from the De Villiers handbook of platitudes. It might very well be that AB and his old mate Faf sit down for a very difficult and awkward conversation when the side return from their adventures. And if De Villiers really is such a team man, surely he’d know what the right thing to do is for the benefit of the team? DM

Photo: South African captain Faf du Plessis looks on during a press conference prior to the team training session at the Western Australia Cricket Ground (WACA) in Perth, Western Australia, Australia, 01 November 2016. EPA/DAVE HUNT


"Take a chance, won't you? Knock down the fences which divide. Tear apart the walls that imprison you. Reach out. Freedom lies just on the other side." ~ Thurgood Marshall