Faf du Plessis could have been lost to South African cricket after signing a Kolpak contract with Lancashire in 2007. Instead, the prodigal returned to become an unusual amalgam in the game in his country: a hard-as-nails batsman and a captain as clear-eyed as he is ambitious.
Faf wins his players’ trust as much with forthrightness as he does with decisive leadership and gritty batting. But if that makes it seem like he was always going to captain South Africa, nothing could be further from fact.
Growing up in AB de Villiers’ shadow — the two have been friends since their primary school days in Pretoria — was never going to help du Plessis’ career. So while de Villiers was dazzling the game, du Plessis was considered primarily a gun fielder who could bowl decent enough leg spin and do a job with the bat.
Nevertheless, he made it into a South Africa shirt in the third one-day international against India at Newlands on 18 January, 2011 and walked to the wicket in the 24th over with his team reduced to 90/4. He stayed until the 45th, scoring 60 and sharing a century stand with JP Duminy.
He played 29 more white-ball internationals, scoring four more half-centuries, before he was entrusted with a Test place. But only because Duminy had snapped his Achilles at the Gabba during the warm-down after the first day of that November 2012 series.
Having lost a boot on his way down the stairs at Adelaide, du Plessis knelt and frantically fiddled with pad straps and bootlaces, all the while wondering if he was about to become the first batsman to be timed out in Test cricket, and on debut no less. Had the Australians known what he would accomplish, they might have appealed.
They didn’t, and spent the next three-and-a-half hours watching du Plessis construct a technically sound, temperamentally superb 78. That proved a warm-up for his monumental effort in the second innings, an undefeated 110 — the product of almost eight hours of batting that saved the match and cast du Plessis as South Africa’s go-to player in a crisis.
A month later his captaincy career began in a T20 series. He first led the ODI side a month after that, and completed his journey to all-format skipper in August 2016. All three times South Africa’s opponents were New Zealand.
Now du Plessis is arguably the best captain the game and unarguably the best man to lead South Africa.