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South Africa vs England: Faf du Plessis deserved better than this Proteas side as captain nears end

The Independent logo The Independent 2020-01-21 Vithushan Ehantharajah
a man wearing a baseball hat © Provided by The Independent

If you want the best indication of how this series has flipped, consider that after South Africa won the first Test by 107 runs, Faf du Plessis defended Joe Root’s captaincy. Now, two England wins on, Root was returning the favour.

When the guts of du Plessis’ situation was put to Root – that the final Test may be his last as captain and certainly his last in South Africa – the question was dismissed outright. That it was of no concern of his, before praising his opposite number.

It was no surprise of course. On the field, the captain is always the most targeted player: a big name, the head of the snake, the one who takes the hit of defeat heavier than others.

But for that reason, there is often a camaraderie off the field. And Root of all people will empathise with what du Plessis is going through. Even as an innings-and-53-run win was confirmed on Monday morning, Root was hammered in some quarters for his tactics.

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There’s every chance the England captain would have come across du Plessis’ words from Centurion, too, and was more than happy to return the favour. So he talked about his worth: “a fantastic leader, a very good captain and a fine player.”

The thing is, it is not hard to chip away the platitudes and wonder if any of that is still true.

As a player, he has been found wanting: a number four batsman who has returned 113 runs from six innings. His application, too, can be question especially when you cast your minds back to South Africa’s second innings in Cape Town when he chose to slog-sweep Dom Bess to square leg when all he needed was time.

Some of his on-field calls have been misguided. Despite being regarded as an astute reader of the game, he’s made a habit of chasing the ball with some of his positionings and tried to be too clever in some instances: not giving Kagiso Rabada the new ball; dropping all-rounder Dwayne Pretorious and replacing him with a bowler in Dane Patterson when you need batting, and outright picking Dane Patterson.

Even as a leader, he has faltered uncharacteristically. Questions on the make-up of the international sides and meeting transformation targets have caused him as much discomfort as England’s attack.

The suspension of Kagiso Rabada for the last Test presents him and the selectors with a real quandary beyond replacing a quick of that quality. The player likely to come in to both shore up the batting and redress the balance in more ways than one is Temba Bavuma. So far, in press conferences the subject has acted as a trigger for some of du Plessis’s most awkward answers.

There is a real sense South African cricket, for all its structural issues at administrative and grass roots level, has never been in a lower place since readmission in 1991. And you could say the same about their captain’s stock.

But there is also inherent sadness that du Plessis international career is well and truly in its final phase. He says he will reassess where he is at at the end of the Twenty20 World Cup later this year, and the desire to win that is especially great for a side who have fallen short and a player who for all his image and gusto across a nine-year stint at the top, has surprisingly little to show for it.

He averages 40 in the longest format: fine for some, but not so for him. There have been just nine hundreds and, perhaps more jarringly, just 64 caps.

a group of baseball players standing on top of a field: Du Plessis walks off dejected during the third Test (Getty) © Provided by The Independent Du Plessis walks off dejected during the third Test (Getty)

What has not been lost among poor form and a tough series has been a sense of duty. When form starts to wane and the body stops being as reliable as it once was, doing right by others: ”The worst thing a leader can do is pull the plug mid-series and say, ‘Sorry boys, I’m out. I’ve had enough.’ I don’t think that’s what leadership is about. You have to stick through the tough times as well.”

“If you leave the team when they need you most, that’s not my style. I have been under pressure a lot of times as a player and I’ve come through those times.”

The series, of course, is not done. A South Africa win at the Wanderers, which begins on Friday, will square the series 2-2 and not just stop England from winning but ensure the hosts do not lose a third series in a row.

There is hope, too, that the imminent retirement of Vernon Philander will inspire South Africa to provide him a winning send-off. Many greats leave in the night, so the chance to bid farewell to a bowler who has served with distinction will be seized.

And du Plessis is no different in that regard. But, as captain, the situation dictates his departure will garner little fanfare. A record of 18 wins in 35 combined with an average of 29.25 since the start of 2018 means he will not be missed.

In many ways, much of the reflection over the next week will not be what Faf du Plessis could have done better but what South Africa could have done better for Faf du Plessis.

During his time at Afrikaanse Hoer Hoër Seunskool, they used to say AB de Villiers was the best multi-talented sportsman at the school. But du Plessis was undoubtedly the best cricketer.

No doubt Root will be asked again for comment on du Plessis when perhaps he will have stepped down as South Africa captain.

What he won’t say is that du Plessis was a fantastic leader, a very good captain and a fine player – who, ultimately, should have achieved more. But he would be right to.

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