Faf du Plessis refused to answer questions pertaining to anything other than the Wanderers Test, including one that asked if the series finale would be his last red-ball match, as he prepared for the must-win clash.
A tired-looking du Plessis did not respond to acting director of cricket Graeme Smith’s assertion that the pair would meet post-series to seek “clarity,” on du Plessis’ future or on having the ODI captaincy taken away from him and given to Quinton de Kock. Instead, he asked for tunnel vision for the next five days as he attempts to stave off a third successive Test series defeat.
“I’d like to, for my own personal reasons, have my focus specifically on this Test match,” du Plessis said. “I know there’s has been a lot spoken about all the other things and too much noise away from Test cricket and the Test team. I would like to speak about what is in front of us.
“This is about this Test match for me. I have not changed communication to you guys in one instant. I’ve said the same thing but the question keeps coming up. I am still committed to playing for South Africa. That hasn’t changed. It’s normal business as usual.”
The announcement of de Kock as ODI captain to lead South Africa to the 2023 World Cup and Smith’s indication that du Plessis’ leadership across formats is up for discussion suggests it is not “business as usual”. But it’s understandable that du Plessis needs to create a vacuum for the next week. His legacy is at stake.
He is arguably South Africa’s most astute captain, who took over at a time of uncertainty with AB de Villiers see-sawing over his availability and several strike bowlers injured, who steered the team to series wins against Australia home and away and who stayed when it would have been simpler to jump ship. That is perhaps du Plessis’ most underrated quality. His selflessness.
He could left after the 2019 World Cup, when overseas offers abounded and knowing that the Ottis Gibson era was over, a tour to India loomed and CSA were at the tip of an iceberg of administrative and financial crises. Du Plessis decided his duty called more than the dollars of overseas leagues and decided to shield his successor by taking the blows.
That du Plessis’ reign has to end, if not soon then at some point, is obvious. He said so himself after the Port Elizabeth Test when he admitted, “I can’t do it forever.” Now, it is about how it ends.
Du Plessis began his career by taking advantage of an opportunity created by injury (JP Duminy tore his Achilles’ during the first Test against Australia in 2012) and built it on tenacity. The most honourable thing his team can do is emulate that in what could be his final bow and he seemed to ask for it when, instead of calling on them to be technically better, he asked them to have a change of mindset.
“When you are deep in the series already, the extra time in the nets is not going to make that much difference,” du Plessis said. “The challenge is how mentally strong we are. There’s not enough time to change techniques. The secret weapon lies in how strong we can be emotionally and mentally.”
The captain’s call comes from first-hand experience of seeing how a team that has been dominated can capitulate at the final hurdle. Two years ago, South Africa came here 2-1 up against an Australian side that were reeling from off-field scandals and beat them by 492 runs. Du Plessis does not want a reverse repeat of that to affect his team.
“If you are mentally off it, teams that are on top of you just keep running with that momentum,” he said. “We need a solid, where we can get a partnership going and feel confidence through the dressing room or if we are fielding, then get early wickets so we can get stuck into their middle order. But we know England are not going to say, ‘here you go guys here’s five or six wickets in this next session, let’s play now’, we have to earn it.”
The hardest thing South Africa will have to work for is runs after failing to pass 300 in the first innings all series. Team management have called on the line-up to show more fight, but du Plessis wants them to combine it with clever strategic thinking.
“You can also get let down by your skill and then your skill looks like you didn’t fight but you either let down in your skill levels or you are let down in a mental error and then it looks like you are not a fighting team but actually it was just bad decision making,” he said. “There needs to be fight and we showed that at Newlands. There was good decision-making there, good game plans and the guys batted with clarity. If you look at PE, we were almost confused as a batting unit.”
Du Plessis has instructed his batsmen not to listen to too much advice from outside, particularly from television commentators who have been picking apart South Africa’s game plan.
“It’s dangerous to listen to all the outside influence,” he said. “As a young player, when great players talk about how you should bat, guys listen because they want to improve. But there is also enough information in our dressing room. Most importantly, it’s about trusting what has got you to the level now to be successful and not feel you have to change your game to be successful.”
He may as well have been saying the same thing to himself. Du Plessis has been zoomed in on in this series with scrutiny on his form (no half-centuries in his last eight innings) and whether he is doing enough to front up. It may be time to acknowledge that the latter is all he has been doing.
With no clear successor for the Test team, du Plessis has had little choice but to keep the job, no matter how badly it’s going for him or how much he wants to run away. His harsh tone and hollow expression may have been the embodiment of that sentiment. Or it could be the perfect facade.
Under this kind of pressure, the best leaders have the ability to emerge with their reputations enhanced. Du Plessis has done it before and if the Wanderers Test is his final frontier, he will want to cross it with class.