Forget what he’s done on the field as a tactician or batsman, one of Faf du Plessis’ greatest strengths as captain of the Proteas is the way he has dealt with the press. This is an important part of the job for any international skipper and Du Plessis is as good as, if not better than, any of his contemporaries.
During the World Cup, which South Africa crashed out of in the group stages after winning just three of their eight completed matches, Du Plessis handled himself with grace. He was forthright when speaking of the disappointment of not having his best mate and best batsman AB de Villiers alongside him. He was candid about the abject performances of his team.
Throughout a tumultuous year, one aspect of Du Plessis' character has shone through — relatability. He may have the jawline of a movie star and possess a torso harder than most cricket pitches, but he is connectable on a human level. He actually answers the question you ask him (a rare thing amongst professional athletes) and looks you in the eye when doing so.
What then can we make of his head-scratching assertion that he had not erred when England’s tail was wagging uncontrollably at the Wanderers?
Anrich Nortje had just bowled South Africa back into the match by claiming his first Test five-for which left England on 318/9. All his mates needed to do was knock over Mark Wood or Stuart Broad and they would be in with a chance of levelling the series.
What followed was a mix of carnage and comedy. In 50 balls, England’s Nos 10 and 11 added 82 runs. Seven sixes and four fours had flown off the bat. At one point Du Plessis had eight men stationed on the boundary while Dane Paterson and Beuran Hendricks were made to look like village trundlers. To steal a tweet from South African writer Tom Eaton, some captains resign with a letter, some with a phone call, others spread the field, give the ball to their least penetrative bowlers and go to sleep until England’s tail finally miscues a six.
Rather than cop to his mistake, as he has throughout his tenure, Du Plessis offered an excuse.
“It’s very easy to captain when guys bowl to a plan,” Du Plessis said after his team had lost by 191 runs inside four days. “When (numbers) nine and 10 get together and they start slogging, you look like the guy who’s getting it wrong. I wish I was so powerful that I can change it. But you can’t. I don’t see it as tactically getting it wrong. I see it as a reflection of the performance of the team. People want answers when your team is getting it wrong and they look to the captain and coach first.”
Du Plessis is half right. His team was poor and the inept bowling to England’s freewheeling tail was a sad sight for a country renowned for its fast bowling. But what exactly was the plan? Sharp cricket minds are able to deduce strategies by looking at field settings. A short leg and a man on the hook indicates a barrage of short stuff is on the way. An extra gully and no cover likely points to some tantalising full balls meant to induce a drive.
Eight men on the boundary can only mean surrender from a man effectively conceding that he has done all he can. Few can blame him. Du Plessis has been asked to steer the most rickety Proteas team through its most challenging seas. In-fighting at board level, spats between the players’ union and the governing body as well as a Kolpak exodus has meant he has held the wheel with one hand tied behind his back. It’s no wonder he’s had enough.
In good times he would have already signed off, potentially pursuing a fortune as a global T20 mercenary. But the truth is there is no ready replacement. Out of duty as much as anything, Du Plessis has committed his services as Test captain until at least the end of the two-match series in the Caribbean in July. After that, all his focus will turn to the T20 World Cup.
“It feels like you’ve been pushing me that way in the last while,” Du Plessis said when a journalist asked he was considering a premature departure from this draining job. “You don’t make decisions like that when you are emotional or disappointed. I know the results don’t look good (eight defeats in the last nine Tests). It shows you where we are in terms of confidence. It’s time off to get away from cricket and from all the noise. To freshen up and then come back for the T20s (against England).”
Quinton de Kock has been named as captain of the 50-over team for the England series and Director of Cricket Graeme Smith has said that this is a permanent appointment. South Africa’s wicketkeeper-batsman is widely regarded as one the most astute cricket brains in the country, but his perceived lack of intelligence (a horribly inaccurate misnomer) means some will question his suitability to the role.
This wouldn’t matter if Cricket South Africa were a wholly private entity. But they represent, or at least purport to represent, a country of almost 60 million. The captain is also the face of the business and his thoughts, and how he articulates them, matter.
Is De Kock well versed on the nuances of the struggle for racial transformation? Is he able to give journalists the headlines they’re after without divulging state secrets? Is he capable of juggling the responsibilities of leadership and wicket-keeping and being his team’s best batsman? Maybe. Those who dismiss his abilities would be foolish to do so. Though the doubters exist for a reason and the Test captaincy could go to a number of other candidates.
Temba Bavuma is the vice-captain of the side but is not assured of a place in the starting 11. He was dropped after a run of 12 innings without a 50 and was told to score big in domestic cricket. His eye-catching 180 for the Lions earned him a recall for the Wanderers finale though he failed to impress with scores of 6 and 27.
Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown and Bavuma already has enough weight to carry as the premier black African batsman in South Africa. His triumphs and failures are used as lightning rods for both detractors and supporters and the extra burden of captaincy may prove his undoing.
Aiden Markram was earmarked as a Proteas captain before he lifted the U-19 World Cup trophy in 2014. As skipper, he showed great maturity and combined that with a weight of runs and was the player of the tournament. When he inevitably graduated to the senior Proteas side, he impressed immediately. He came within three runs of a century on debut and then hit 143 and 125 in his next two Test innings. A dazzling 152 against Australia in March 2018 all but confirmed his destiny.
He was handed the reins for an ODI series against Virat Kolhi’s Indians after Du Plessis was injured but the wheels came off. Before he captained the team, he averaged almost 49.5 in all formats. After he was entrusted with extra responsibility, he has averaged less than 30.
Markram is a one of those prodigal talents. He has the potential to dominate attacks around the world for a generation. His future may be at number four as the fulcrum of South Africa’s line-up. It would be unwise to ask him to captain so soon.
That means the only viable solution is a stop-gap in the form of Dean Elgar. The pugnacious opener has hardly set the world alight at the top of the order but he is at least settled in his position. Furthermore, he has in the past intimated that he would like to captain the side, even if it is for a short period.
Elgar is a popular figure in the dressing room and would be able to serve as a midwife between the Du Plessis years and whatever comes next. It will not be dynastic but it will allow the aforementioned youngsters time to develop.
Whoever is appointed, it is imperative that the succession plan is made clear. The heir apparent must be paraded as such. Before and during the West Indies tour, he must sit next to Du Plessis in team meetings, he must address the media as a captain in waiting, he must present himself as an anointed leader, chosen by his predecessor and with the backing of those who will help him rebuild.
Du Plessis’ legacy will, unfortunately, be tainted by the past 12 months. He has a strong case of being South Africa’s best. Smith has a better record but he also had a better team. Of the players that overlapped both eras — Dale Steyn, AB de Villiers, JP Duminy, Morne Morkel, Vernon Philander, Du Plessis himself — none were at the peak of their powers when Du Plessis was in charge.
New coach Mark Boucher has been handed a tough assignment. South African cricket is at its lowest point since it was welcomed back to the international stage but at least he had Du Plessis. He soon won’t. Those baying for his resignation may soon regret it when it comes.
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The matches are scheduled to be played from 11-25 July and will comprise three ODIs, that will form part of the ICC's Cricket World Cup Super League programme, and three T20 Internationals.
Smith was asked about CSA's decision to write to the ICC describing Australia's decision as "against the spirit of sportsmanship" and having implications for the credibility of the ICC World Test championship.
CSA's complaint to the ICC is understood to seek World Test championship points for the series on the grounds that it cannot be re-scheduled before 30 April, the deadline for championship matches, as well as financial compensation.