It used to be said that the Springbok captaincy was the hardest job in South African sport. The historical baggage, the clash of cultures and the unrelenting public pressure is rather like kissing the queen: a great honour, but something you wouldn’t ordinarily choose.
Siya Kolisi has somehow managed it and the unfortunate cloak has been passed on. It now resides with the Proteas captain, whoever that might be when the dust finally settles. Ask Faf du Plessis about his decision to relinquish the armband and he might answer as some do when asked the status of their relationship: “It’s complicated.”
In South Africa, being team captain is never purely about strategy, fronting up and setting the tone. You must represent (and blend) a potpourri of languages and cultures, cope with the relentless politics and, inevitably, be a buffer between the squad and the suits. When all that is done, you can think about your game.
This is the world that Du Plessis fell into when he took charge eight years ago. He was asked to take over and did so out of a sense of duty, something that has defined his career from the start. He famously won important series and if he never quite had the technical elegance or élan of some of his more celebrated contemporaries, he was stoic and gritty; qualities admired by South Africans.
Du Plessis had the misfortune to take over when the team was in transition, with Jacques Kallis and Graeme Smith leaving massive voids and AB de Villiers still finding his place in the realm.
I remember my first coach/captain relationship with you with the SA A side. You left an indelible impression on me and the team in your first team meeting. @faf1307, You still have a massive role to play in the Proteas setup. Good luck my friend #teamculture
— Vincent Barnes (@VincentBarnes60) February 17, 2020
It couldn’t have been easy, but Du Plessis knuckled down and didn’t complain. He captained the Proteas 112 times with a success rate of 61 percent, higher than Smith even. Yet the slow burn of failure was lit a year ago when SA lost a home series to Sri Lanka, the first team from Asia to enjoy such success. Then, last May, came the grim World Cup and the bitter, baleful fallout that followed.
The clock was soon ticking.
With the squad in yet another state of flux – De Villiers, Hashim Amla, JP Duminy and Vernon Philander have all gone, with Dale Steyn in the twilight – Du Plessis must have found the pressure intolerable. His form reflected that.
When the issue of transformation was raised some weeks ago, Du Plessis clumsily opined that “we don’t see colour” with regard to the team composition, a naïve response to a loaded question. Sportsmen routinely trot out rote answers without thinking, and this was one such occasion. Du Plessis should have been more circumspect, but he hardly deserved the sweeping criticism that followed. His was a clumsy response, not an ignorant one given his experience of coping with the social and cultural landmines that define the SA sporting zeitgeist.
Now in his cricketing dotage, two options remain for the decent, dignified former captain. He might simply fade away quietly – although you wouldn’t bet on it given his competitive nature – or he might play with a new-found freedom his eminence deserves.
Du Plessis’ legacy ought not to be as complicated as his tenure. He was a captain in the good times and the bad, and he only ever gave his all.
We were lucky to have him.