Faf du Plessis has worn many faces over his long Proteas career. We saw the stern look of resistance when he batted for an eternity to save Tests in Australia and against India, writes DANIEL GALLAN.
We saw a touch of insecurity and self-doubt when his best mate, AB de Villiers, was catapulted to the captaincy even though he was always the more natural leader of men. We saw the broad smile framed by his angular jaw when he became the first South African captain to win a Test series at home against Australia. We saw the disconsolate look of a defeated man throughout a draining 2019.
At St George’s Park in Port Elizabeth on Monday, he simply looked tired. The grey in his thinning coifed hair had never glistened so intently. His shoulders were drooped and his voice was sombre. He wasn’t sulking. That’s not his style. He just needed to plop himself in his favourite chair with a tall glass of the strong stuff and close his eyes for a little bit.
‘I’ve felt the team has needed a leader to stand up and steer the ship through a difficult time,’ Du Plessis said after his team’s innings and 53-run defeat to England. ‘We’re going through a transition period. I can’t do it forever. It has been chipping away, it does chip way at your character. But for now that is what you need. It would make it worse if I say I’m out.’
Du Plessis was fielding questions about another abject performance from his players, about Kagiso Rabada’s suspension for the series finale in Johannesburg and about his future as the captain of this team.
He committed his loyalty to the end of the T20 World Cup in October. He has vowed to assist in this transitional period even if it costs him his reputation and batting average. Is he selflessly holding on to power like some manic despot? Or is he selflessly shielding his successor until he has come of age?
Duty. That is what is driving Du Plessis. He downplayed the weight of the word when a journalist asked if this abstract concept was serving as his reserve tank. But what else could it be? He has made a fortune playing cricket. His white-ball stats – as he rightly pointed out – are up there with the best in the business. He could easily decide the De Villiers approach is the way to go and hightail it for a life on the road, freelancing and making bank in an array of stadiums around the world.
Instead, he is here, wearing white and watching as senior players Quinton de Kock and Vernon Philander play reckless shots and chuck their wickets away, contributing to South Africa not reaching the follow-on threshold. He is here, wearing the Protea badge, watching Kagsio Rabada’s stupidity land him in the red with the ICC and subsequently miss the series finale in Johannesburg.
Du Plessis was far from perfect in this match. Picking Philander seemed to be driven by sentiment for his imminent retirement as much as cricketing logic and the decision to keep the new ball out of Rabada’s hand was bemusing. But he did set clever fields to peg England back on day one and were it not for the brilliance of Ben Stokes and Ollie Pope, he would have kept England within touching distance.
His form with the bat remains a concern, however, and was not something Du Plessis sought to avoid.
‘From a runs point of view I’m not at the level I need to be,’ Du Plessis said. ‘At the moment a few of us are underperforming, including myself and thats a fact. 20s and 30s have never and will never win Test matches. My standards need to be better and I’m not reaching those standards.’
Du Plessis intimated that the Wanderers Test may be his last as captain of the side on home soil. If that is the case, he will want a commanding response from those who share a field with him at the Bull Ring.
‘I can’t look that far ahead but it’s possible Test cricket is something that won’t see me. For now it is just about being as mentally strong as possible. We need our leaders. It is a tough time and we need to fight. From a runs point of view I’m not at the level I need to be but still have a huge responsibility as a captain to make sure we win the Test match.’
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