Afrikaanse Hoër Seunskool, a public high school in Pretoria, has been the alma mater to some of the biggest South African sporting names in rugby and cricket. AB de Villiers and Faf du Plessis were two of its famous pupils who studied together and were earmarked for greatness right from their school days, revelling in leadership roles. De Villiers enjoyed a bigger star appeal during his playing days, but in recent times, de Plessis’ impressive Test record as a captain has seen his popularity soar.
The recent win in Cape Town, where du Plessis struck a century, helped South Africa take an unassailable 2-0 lead against Pakistan in the three-match Test series. This was South Africa’s seventh straight home victory and with a struggling Sri Lankan slated to tour next month, du Plessis could well be presiding over the eighth back-to-back series triumph on home soil.
2018 was the most successful year for the Proteas where they tasted success against the world’s top Test team India and won their maiden series at home against Australia for the first time since their readmission to international cricket in 1991. Du Plessis proved to be an able leader in both these triumphs, but it was the series against Australia where his captaincy skills were tested to the hilt.
The hosts had suffered a bruising defeat in the first Test, but du Plessis and his men scripted a stunning turnaround in the second Test to draw level and then take total control. This was the series where players of both teams were involved in bust-ups with each other, but du Plessis ensured none of his players lost the mental focus. In the third Test, the visitors were found tampering with the ball, an incident that created a major upheaval in Australian cricketing circles that ultimately led to bans on skipper Steve Smith, David Warner, and Cameron Bancroft, who later admitted to using sandpaper to scratch the ball.
Du Plessis may have shown his exemplary captaincy skills during his school days but he had to wait patiently to take on the reins of the South African Test side. After the exit of Graeme Smith in 2014, it was Hashim Amla who staked his claims to take on the leadership role. But crushing defeats in India and against England demoralised Amla, who felt even his own batting was suffering due to the captaincy pressures. De Villiers stepped in, but a spate of injuries meant Du Plessis was thrust into the job. He made a winning start against the Kiwis at home, but his his first big test was a series in Australia in 2016 and the Proteas created a stunning upset, winning the series 2-1.
Despite a world-class bowling attack at his disposal, the 34-year-old has handled this temperamental unit with finesse. Du Plessis’ reign has seen the emergence of the new bowling stars like Kagiso Rabada and Lungi Nigidi while it also coincided with career-threatening injuries to the likes of Dale Steyn. Rabada, despite his wicket-taking heroics, has repeatedly come under the scanner of the match officials due his overt display of aggression. Du Plessis has been the father figure to Rabada, helping the youngster control his belligerence without blunting his killer instincts.
In the series against Pakistan, the tearaway has looked menacing with 12 wickets in the two Tests, but has let the red cherry do most of the talking. As a captain, he has thoroughly backed Steyn despite a poor showing in Sri Lanka. Steyn took time to settle down in the first Test at Centurion, but was back at his imperious best in Newlands. Du Plessis took a gamble by not including a spinner in the playing XI at Newlands against Pakistan, despite the track being traditionally known to favour slow bowlers. But the plan worked as the Pakistan batting crumbled against the all-out pace attack. The South African fast-bowling arsenal consisting of Steyn, Rabada, Duanne Olivier and Vernon Philander is one of the most formidable bowling attacks in the world.
Du Plessis relishes the challenges of captaincy and his own batting record has improved since taking over as the skipper. As a skipper, he averages 43.15 from 49 innings while his average is 41.02 from 45 innings when not playing as a captain. In the series against India in 2018, he had two crucial half-centuries in low-scoring encounters and also struck a hundred in the third Test against Australia in Newlands. In the last Test match against Pakistan, the pressure was on the South African captain after he bagged a pair in Centurion. But he shrugged off the disappointment by hitting a century to help his side put up a big total in the first innings. Du Plessis, slapped with a one-Test ban due to slow over rate, will not be part of the next match against Pakistan at Wanderers, but he has already created a lasting legacy in South African cricket with his phenomenal winning spree at home.