LEGEND’S JOURNEY WEBINAR
Faf du Plessis talks about ‘honesty and vulnerability’ he poured into autobiography, and tough lessons of leadership
Faf du Plessis’s new book caused quite a stir before its release, but he assures, in conversation with Daily Maverick sports editor Craig Ray, that all the stories are centred on what shaped him as a person and a leader.
After years of people asking him to write a book during his international career, Du Plessis finally succumbed during the Covid-19 lockdown.
I [thought] ‘let me have a crack at this book thing’. If I’m going to do it, I’m going to give it my everything and that’s exactly what happened. I became really obsessed,” Du Plessis said.
“I got out all my diaries throughout the years, which was mostly about leadership and talks I did with the team and culture around that. Then it just flowed into the book. [I spent] hours and hours, I’d be sitting until two in the morning and writing, so I really became obsessed with it.
“The three things that were running from my hand into the paper were leadership, culture and relationships. Those are the three things that are the throughline of the book.
“Cricket stories come in here and there to give [readers] a front-row seat into what happens at international cricket.
“Honesty and vulnerability. It’s something I pride myself on a lot within leadership in the South African cricket team. Really try and break down those hard-exterior people that think you can’t be vulnerable. Those are things I spent a lot of time and attention on.”
Writing the autobiography – which was officially published at the end of October – was “a process that I thought would be a lot shorter”, Du Plessis said. “I thought it would be a six-to-nine-month thing and then bring the book out last year, but it took two and a half years.”
Du Plessis always thrived with a ball in his hand. Initially it was a tennis ball that he would always try to catch, but that eventually led to a red leather ball.
“As I got to 10, 11, 12, that’s when I really [realised] cricket was something I was blessed with as a talent. But also, it was something I really wanted to get better at, so I had the desire from a young age.
“I tried to play rugby, but I was just never as good. It was about the skill level. I was better than the guys at my age and I always just wanted to jump one or two age groups further.”
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Du Plessis was raised with divorced parents. He received contrasting love from his mother and his father – his dad was the stern patriarch while his mom was the affectionate caretaker.
“The relationship with my dad and how that worked and how he pushed me to levels that were extreme, especially pain and empathy, were probably the two things that I really got squeezed a lot [from him].”
In his journey to perfecting his newfound talent, Du Plessis stumbled upon AB de Villiers. The pair were the same age at the same high school, Afrikaanse Hoër Seunskool (Affies), and followed the same journey to the Titans after school before playing together for the Proteas.
“From the age of 13 I go through this journey of this relationship that is about competitiveness, about friendship, about jealousy and envy, it’s about maturity,” he said about De Villiers.
“So, the relationship with AB, there’s a few stories in the book where we go through this journey together and fast-forward to him giving me my first cap as a Test player at the age of 28. Nine years after he made his international debut. Even fast-forward to right at the end when we were playing together. Some of the challenges that were there around captaincy and friendship and all of that.”
De Villiers and Du Plessis were joined at Affies by a number of talented youngsters who went on to play international cricket.
“It was an amazing era – Jacques Rudolph, Kruger van Wyk who were our seniors and then myself and AB and then Heino [Kuhn] and Neil Wagner were a year younger than us.
“We were an incredible cricket team. I think we lost two games in three years or something. Which was great and set us up on different paths in our careers.”
It wasn’t all sunshine and runs for Du Plessis as his career progressed to higher levels.
He was charged with ball tampering during a Test match against Pakistan, in an incident he now dubs “zippergate”. That incident – like many others on his journey – although negative, made Du Plessis a better person at the end of it, he said.
“This journey I was on as a leader, and then as a person with zippergate and then learning some really valuable lessons in that space where I went ‘this is not what I want to do, this is not who I want to be, this is not the kind of value system I want to have’. There’s a shift and there’s a change.”
On the back of the lessons learnt throughout his journey, Du Plessis – in the later stages of his career – was faced with the challenge of choosing his friend or choosing the team he was leading.
Two days before the 2019 50-over Cricket World Cup squad announcement, De Villiers reached out to Du Plessis, who was captain at the time, to tell him he was available for selection.
“Six, seven, maybe eight years after [zippergate], with the context of everything, [my decisions] were based on values and principles and the principle there was, ‘it wouldn’t feel right toward the other guys that have been working really hard to earn a position in the World Cup squad’.
“Then you go through the process – and I explain to the reader [in the book] – how hard it is. AB is my long-standing friend but he’s also the best player in the world. Even though he stopped playing.
“It didn’t feel right but I went to speak to the selectors and the coach to see what they think and the feeling was unanimous that it was just too late.
“That was hard for me. It was hard for AB as well because at that stage he thought he was done but then realised he could do one more World Cup. For both of us it was tough.”
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After the failure of that World Cup (South Africa finished seventh in the 10-team showing), Du Plessis was once again determined to learn from his errors.
“The post-mortem of that was, ‘listen, our communication can be better around this, so let’s do this better. I’m phoning you now to tell you that I want you to go with me to the 2020 (held in 2021) World Cup. We’re going to win it and you’re going to be by my side’, he said to De Villiers. “And then full circle, I didn’t go to the 2020 World Cup myself.”
Du Plessis always knew he wanted to be a professional cricketer. He slacked off in most other facets of his life in his younger days as cricket always had his number-one attention.
“I realised in school – I think I was 16 or 17 – that I wanted to be a professional cricketer because I had the determination to go, ‘this is what I wanted to do with my life’,” he said
“I enrolled into the Titans academy [after school]. I became obsessed with just eating and living cricket. And lucky for me that worked out.
“Through the journey of my professional career I go around the vulnerability around the fact that I reached the point at some stage where potentially cricket might not have worked out for me.
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“The coach [at the Titans] was like, ‘I don’t think four-day cricket is in your future’. And there weren’t white-ball contracts back then so you can’t really just play white-ball cricket, so potentially that was [going to be it].
“It was around the age of 26 where this journey around growing as a person and cricketer, I really started finding my maturity. Before that it was just me being a professional cricketer full-time. Outside of that it was enjoying life, enjoying being young, travelling the world. But there was always a super amount of dedication around my craft which is cricket. I never went off the rails that would affect that.”
‘Culture back then’
Du Plessis recalls several anecdotes in the book which shaped the person he became.
One of them is about former Proteas and Titans cricketer Daryll Cullinan who used colourful language towards Du Plessis during their first introduction.
“That was just the culture back then,” Du Plessis said about Cullinan’s antics.
“The purpose of the book was never to talk about someone where the story is about them. All the stories are always about me and how it shaped me as a person and a leader.
“I was super embarrassed about it because it’s in front of everyone else and guys are like, ‘shew, what’s going on here’, but the main thing there was, I walked away from there and I said to myself, ‘I will never in my entire life speak to a junior player like that’.
“Because someone that is so high in the [rankings] and I looked up to him. The power of the words that they have over someone else is huge. It was a hard lesson but it was an unbelievable lesson for me to learn at a very young age.”
Du Plessis’s development as a person and as leader came from positive experiences too. He credits Richard Pybus, Gary Kirsten, Paddy Upton, MS Dhoni, Stephen Fleming and Russell Domingo among the coaches and captains to have influenced him the most, in different aspects.
“The times that I enjoyed my cricket most and the people that I enjoyed working with the most were the people that understood soft skills, that understood the value of that.
“Towards the end [of the book] I speak about not feeling that value anymore and being disconnected to the purpose around soft skills.” DM