Faf du Plessis will not be drawn into a social (or any other kind) of media battle over his form or comparisons with other players, specifically Temba Bavuma, who continues to crop up in conversations despite not playing in South Africa’s ongoing series against England.
Bavuma was dropped for the Newlands Test after recovering from a hip injury that kept him out of the first match, and has been sent back to play on the domestic circuit. At the time, du Plessis explained that “weight of runs,” was the only way for Bavuma to work his way back into the XI. While that made sense from a cricketing perspective – Bavuma averaged 19.84 in 2019 – it struck a nerve with Bavuma supporters. They argued on two fronts: dropping Bavuma robbed the country of its only black African batsman and so diminished representation and further disenfranchised the majority, and that du Plessis himself had been through a dip, with no scores over 30 in his last seven innings.
Du Plessis knows that. He knows that his performances are not quite where he needs them to be. He also knows that as the person who most offers delivers explanations for team selection, he will bear the brunt of the public’s anger if they disagree with the playing XI. And he also knows that as a white captain, working under a white head coach and a white CEO in a country where the majority is black African, his public statements need to be nuanced and non-polarising and that more often than not, they won’t be. It comes with the territory.
“You are used to it. When you have played international cricket for as long I have, it comes with media for you and media against you. And to read to much into it, for and against – it’s really important for any player not to get sucked into it too much,” du Plessis said. “I am not getting in a battle with myself and Temba over who plays and who doesn’t. My performances also need to go up in terms of scoring. Temba has been put in a position where he needs to score runs to get back into the team and if he does that, he will.”
“We are as close as we have been before. There is a real direction and purpose for this team. The outside noise will always be there. It’s almost like a good story to read that its not going well and there are a few things going wrong in the camp, which they are not.”
FAF DU PLESSIS
Importantly, du Plessis identified the ongoing debate as an issue that has the potential to severely impact a cricketing career. Like other controversies (think sandpapergate or an affray charge), the race debate in South Africa is serious and there are no easy answers. Du Plessis is caught in the cross-hairs at a time when the landscape of the country’s cricket is changing, so he faces as much pressure off the field as he does on it. He has worked hard on ways to deal with both in order to ensure longevity to his career. “The difference between players who play at this level for a short time and those who play for a long time is how they can cope mentally with the pressures that come with it,” he said.
Du Plessis has been an international for nine years and the Test captain for three-and-a-half. He has overseen South Africa’s redemption from the back-to-back series losses in India and against England in the 2015-16 summer, their first home series win over Australia since readmission in 2017, their first home series loss against a subcontinent side (Sri Lanka 2019) and two disastrous tours to the subcontinent (Sri Lanka 2018, India 2019). He has outlasted three coaches, Russell Domingo, Ottis Gibson and Enoch Nkwe, and seen all his team-mates from his debut call time on their careers. He is the storm.
And he also believes there is a rainbow that the rest of us cannot see. While divisive rhetoric surrounds the South African side, they remain unified and committed. “We are as close as we have been before. There is a real direction and purpose for this team. The outside noise will always be there. It’s almost like a good story to read that its not going well and there are a few things going wrong in the camp, which they are not. There are no issues. The team is going well,” du Plessis said.
He emphasised that the team’s morale has improved since their whitewash in India but stressed that there are still things that need fixing, apart from his own form. “For a very young team to have put in performances that we have in the last two Tests, shows really good signs. From where we were in India, as a team, very low on confidence, we have shown huge steps in the right direction to become the team that we need to be,” du Plessis said. “But myself and [Mark] Boucher said that a few times, it does not happen overnight. Things like this will take time. We need to get some caps under our players, we need to get some experience and in a year or two’s time, hopefully this team would have made the increase in performances and could challenge to be in the top three in the world.”
By then, du Plessis will also have retired and if you believe South Africa’s assistant coach, Enoch Nkwe, Bavuma could be in charge of the side. If that happens, South African cricket and its media wars will have reached a truce.