In the sweltering Adelaide heat of early summer 2012, Faf du Plessis announced his arrival as a Test player of technique, skill and most vitally, character. Traits he never lost, nor abandoned even when form and circumstances turned against him. Those qualities ensured he became South Africa’s captain and those attributes ensured that he never lost respect from peers and outsiders.
On debut, he thwarted the Australian bowling attack for the better part of two days, on his way to an unbeaten 110 to salvage a draw, which set the Proteas up for a historic Test series win in Australia. It was an innings that made his reputation but also weighed him down in his subsequent 64 Tests. Everything was compared to that epic seven-hour, 46 minutes innings in which he faced 376 balls.
On Monday, Du Plessis announced he was stepping down as South Africa’s Test and T20 captain, just weeks after relinquishing the One-Day International (ODI) captaincy to Quinton de Kock. Classy to the end, Du Plessis has given up one of the hardest jobs in sport with dignity.
Du Plessis’ resignation, which looked increasingly inevitable over the past few months as he batted off questions about his future with the same dedication and application he showed in Adelaide nearly eight years ago, bookends a dramatic summer of cricket.
The season started with turmoil at Cricket South Africa (CSA). Two years of mismanagement came to a head in December when Chief Executive Thabang Moroe tried to ban journalists critical of CSA from attending domestic Mzansi Super League T20 matches.
The fallout came after criticism of the handling of an impasse with the South African Cricketers’ Association (Saca), which filed court papers against CSA to show cause over its decision to restructure domestic cricket. Standard Bank promptly announced they would no longer sponsor cricket when their current contract expires and Momentum threatened the same if there wasn’t change at board level.
Those body blows came a year after CSA announced, in late 2018, that it projected a R654-million loss over the next four years. These incidents and other problems eventually led to Maroe’s suspension in December 2019 and the resignation of four board members. Against this backdrop, Du Plessis and a team in transition first had to fend off India, in India and then face a resurgent England in South Africa.
Losing five of the six Tests they played between October 2019 and January 2020 took its toll on Du Plessis. His own batting form suffered and questions about his future were pitched with metronomic consistency every time he took guard in front of a mic. He was “rested” for the ODI and T20 series against England.
Du Plessis left the ball well when it came to discussing his future, but on Monday he finally played a straight drive and declared his intentions. He would step down as skipper in all formats of the game.
“The last few weeks of rest away from the game have given me a lot of perspective on the great privilege and honour I have had in representing and leading my country in the three formats of this wonderful game,” Du Plessis said in a statement. “It has been a rewarding, sometimes tough and other times a lonely road, but I would not replace the experience for anything, because it has made me the man that I am proud to be today.
“When I took over the leadership, I did so with the commitment to lead, perform and most importantly, to serve. As the team heads into a new direction with new leaders and a young crop of players, I feel it will be in the best interests of South African cricket to relinquish the captaincy in all formats. This was one of the toughest decisions to make, but I remain fully committed to supporting Quinton, Mark (coach Mark Boucher) and my teammates as we continue to rebuild and re-align as a group.
“After the 2019 ICC World Cup, I made the decision to continue in my role as captain while the team went through a rebuilding phase following the retirement of some key senior players and a complete overhaul of the coaching staff that we had worked with until then.
“It was important to me that I stayed to help the team find its feet and plot a new way forward while assisting in identifying the next generation of leaders within the players’ group during a time of turbulence in SA cricket. The last season of my captaincy has been the most challenging to date as I had a lot of off-field issues that I devoted my energy towards.”
Du Plessis won’t be lost to the team – if the selectors and coach Mark Boucher want him – saying he will continue as a player.
Boucher and acting Cricket South Africa (CSA) director of cricket Graeme Smith oddly did not comment on the resignation of a man who led the team in 36 Tests, 39 ODIs and 37 T20 internationals. Under Du Plessis South Africa won 69 of those 112 matches in all formats, which included 21 series wins – most famously a Test series win in Australia.
Du Plessis was appointed as South Africa’s full-time T20 captain in February 2013, before he took over the Test captaincy from AB de Villiers in 2016. In September 2017, he was named the ODI captain. Under him, South Africa made the semi-finals of the Men’s T20 World Cup in 2014.
He had a great beginning as Test captain, with two series wins in New Zealand, one in Australia and a 3-0 sweep of Sri Lanka at home during the 2016/17 season. He won 17 of his first 20 games as the ODI captain, which included series sweeps against Australia, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka at home, and an away 2-1 win against Australia.
How much Du Plessis willingly let the captaincy go, particularly of the Test reins, and how much he was pushed to release his grip is not publicly known. In time those details will emerge, but now is not as much about the forces that brought Du Plessis to this point, but rather about acknowledging his contribution.
The fact that there is no obvious Test successor for Du Plessis has left CSA with a thorny problem to manage. De Kock did well in his first taste of leadership, but captaining a Test team while keeping wicket and being the team’s form batsman will take a toll.
“I have strived to lead the team with dignity and authenticity during exhilarating highs and devastating lows,” Du Plessis said.
“I have given my everything during my tenure. I have never been one to throw in the towel and do believe I am putting the team first and believe we have to stick through the tough times to get to the good times. In a perfect world I would have loved to lead the team in the Tests for the rest of the season as well as the T20 World Cup, but sometimes the most important attribute of a leader is to be selfless.
“I am healthy, fit, energised and motivated and certainly see myself playing an important role in the squad for as long as I continue putting in winning performances for the team.
“South African cricket has entered a new era. New leadership, new faces, new challenges and new strategies. I remain committed to play in all three formats of the game for now as a player and will offer my knowledge and time to the new leaders of the team.”
Part of that new era Du Plessis references is being managed by interim CEO Jacques Faul. The experienced and respected administrator reprised the role he had done briefly in 2012 when another CSA CEO, Gerald Majola, was suspended.
In his short tenure, relationships with sponsors have improved and Saca dropped its court case on 7 February with an agreement that both parties would consult on a possible restructure of domestic cricket. Faul has managed to bring cricket’s most important partners – sponsors and the players – back to the table.
“We are still working through our issues, but restoring our relationship with the Saca was big for us,” Faul told Daily Maverick on Monday.
“We can now move and decide on how we are planning for next season and how we contract, which is big for us. There was so much uncertainty around those issues.
“Of course, on the field we would have liked to have seen better results against England, but they are an excellent cricket team. In saying that, though, the last four matches the Proteas played this summer were sold out and that’s a positive sign. Your average fan just wants to see the Proteas play and win and we will get there.
“Momentum has sponsored the Proteas women’s team, which is another positive sign from where we were. We are engaging with the sponsors again.”
Du Plessis is in the autumn of his career and this season was probably the last South Africans have seen of him in all international formats of the game. There are many challenges for CSA to manage and resolve, not least of which is the perilous financial outlook for the sport. But if Du Plessis has shown anything, it’s that with some grit, application and skill, success will follow. DM
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