When Faf du Plessis said he was stepping down as captain of the Proteas, the final words of his announcement were the most telling: “It has been the greatest honour of my life to lead my country.”
Professional sportsmen and women are motivated by different things. Some love the idea of winning matches or breaking records, others see the financial rewards that come with playing international cricket.
But for Du Plessis, leading has always been the major attraction. Not the power that comes with the role, but the responsibility. He has thrived on it, adding flair, a considerate touch with the spinners and no shortage of charisma to the job.
Leading has always come naturally. Even in the formative years with AB de Villiers, it was always Du Plessis who was the leader. His teammates speak of his calm and his unflinching clarity around roles, especially at a time when the Test team was in a state of transition.
With Dale Steyn prone to injury and De Villiers on sabbatical, Du Plessis looked around the room for new leaders. He wrapped an arm around Kagiso Rabada and empowered him to be the leader of the pack.
There was one startling image of the captain and his spearhead during the November 2016 tour of Australia. Du Plessis was so enamoured with his young talisman’s display that he planted a kiss on his head in celebration. “I’m sleeping with him tonight,” the captain later joked.
Steyn had limped off early in that match and South Africa were down a top bowler for the rest of the game. Rabada chose that moment to step up and Du Plessis took note. “That’s the sign of a champion bowler for me,” he said. “Just someone who wants to be in the fight the whole time.”
Rising to Australia’s challenge
The pair certainly didn’t mind a scrap with Australia and Du Plessis seemed to save his belligerent best for the Baggy Greens. His debut Test century was against them and one of his most telling Test contributions was at Adelaide, in the wake of Mintgate.
To a chorus of boos, sparked by revelations that South Africa were using peppermint residue to change the swing of the ball, Du Plessis strode out and gleaned off a fighting century in the day-night Test. His young team watched on in admiration.
There was also the infamous Tunnelgate affair, which was the spark for a most acrimonious return series in 2018. With Quinton de Kock and Australia’s David Warner exchanging insults all the way back to the dressing room at Kingsmead, Du Plessis and Rabada heard the commotion and instinct took over.
“I was just out of the shower and only had a towel on,” the normally immaculately turned out Du Plessis would later say about his choice of attire in that moment. “There was no time to even put a shirt on! It was that serious.”
They instinctively strode out of the dressing room to back up De Kock, with Rabada bristling with intent. It was a precursor for an enthralling series, where the limits of Test combat were stretched and, ultimately, bent by the time the summer ended.
It was brutal, but it was also brilliantly engrossing cricket. And Du Plessis played his role as captain to the full. He has always relished a bit of needle in the middle, unapologetically stating that he won’t shy away from confrontation if and when it comes knocking.
In the 2011 ICC Cricket World Cup, as South Africa crashed out against New Zealand in the quarterfinals, a young Du Plessis was surrounded by Kiwis after a mix-up had resulted in De Villiers being run out at a crucial stage.
A King among Kings in Chennai
The hot heat of the Kiwi barbs stung and stuck with him, and he resolved to be mentally tougher from then on. It is a measure of his stature in the game that New Zealand’s captain that day, Brendon McCullum, has gone on to state glowing admiration for Du Plessis as a leader. Indeed, at the star-studded Chennai Super Kings, his place in the leadership core is undoubted.
Even with MS Dhoni, Dwayne Bravo and several other strong personalities in the melting pot, Du Plessis’s words carry worldly weight.
When he stood in the middle of the Pune Stadium in October 2019, glancing at the scene of the grievous harm that India had inflicted upon his South African Test side, he was confronted by an unusual feeling. It was an uncommon thing for him to confront such a defeat, especially at a ground that held so many fond memories and mates.
Following their return to the Indian Premier League after a two-year suspension for alleged spot fixing, the Chennai Super Kings had used Pune as an alternative home basis because of the protests in Chennai. Du Plessis, who remains a fan favourite for the bright yellow-clad franchise, became part of the Pune furniture, addressing the ground staff by name and making regular visits to the neighbouring Oxford Golf Club.
Those living in the Maharashtra region considered him one of their own, affording him a reverence second only to one AB de Villiers when it comes to overseas players.
“I love the place and it’s definitely become a home from home. It’s one of the most progressive cities in India and they’ve really taken us in,” he said of its residents.
That’s always been a Du Plessis trait. He has made a habit of entrenching himself in changing rooms and teams.
When his international wheel turned slower than school buddy De Villiers’, the outgoing South African captain went to the United Kingdom to hone his skills. At Liverpool Cricket Club, they still speak fondly of an outrageously gifted batting allrounder who looked the business. Nottinghamshire offered him a deal and the traffic in the South African middle order around the time of his debut might have convinced a 21-year-old Du Plessis to be an early innovator in the Kolpak trend.
Going out with a bang down under
Ultimately, Du Plessis chose his country. It has always mattered deeply to him and that sense of duty compelled him to stay when easy money was on the table beyond the World Cup. Ironically, the band of brothers that he started with during his formative days at Northerns Academy – Steyn, De Villiers, Du Plessis – may be back together for a final fling in Australia.
It would perhaps be fitting for Du Plessis if it all ends in Australia, the team against which he first announced himself as an international player and then as a leader of men.
Du Plessis the batsman will surely be hoping that now, free of the rigours of leadership, the runs will flow furiously once more. The final year of his tenure was disappointing on a personal and collective scale as runs and wins dried up. He joked that he couldn’t even win a toss anymore, such was his barrenness of form or fortune.
Some thought Du Plessis might have called time sooner, as he watched Vernon Philander join the list of generational contemporaries departing the team.
The cracks that started to show in India widened against England. The runs still did not come and Du Plessis’s normally articulate musings included the clanger that “they didn’t see colour”, even as a uniquely South African colour debate rumbled around the team.
The utterance was perhaps the clearest indication of the summer that Du Plessis had too much on his mind, because he was always an expert at reading the room as a captain and a statesman. His lack of form didn’t help and he tried to rouse himself in his final knock as captain at the Wanderers in Johannesburg.
His spat with Jos Buttler and Stuart Broad was precisely that, a minor niggle on the field that was forgotten by the time the teams shook hands to mark the end of the series. The hosts invited the visitors into their dressing room to mark the end of the series and, as it turned out, the end of an era.
Du Plessis would end that night at a hotel bar with the Proteas and English players in tow. A long conversation with Buttler in particular showed there were no lingering ill feelings and spoke of the overwhelming respect that the South African leader has earned over the years.
When he has spoken, people have tended to listen. He has been nuanced and often brutally honest about the lay of the cricketing land. Leading South Africa is rightly regarded as the most difficult job in cricket. Part-time politician, part-time psychologist, full-time cricketer.
There is relentless introspection and the considerable toll it takes showed in Du Plessis as the summer raged on. Now, as he enters the final straight of a career that has not been short of character or controversy, Du Plessis will want to let his cricket deliver the parting shots.