Osman Samiuddin at The Oval
Faf du Plessis is sexy as hell. Try and deny it. If that’s a bit too in your face, let’s put this another way: he’s the kind of guy some of us want to be like and the kind of guy some of us want to be with. ‘Charismatic’ works, ‘magnetic’ maybe even more so, because there’s no escaping that he has this intrinsic pull that is the gift, sadly, of only a chosen few.
Another land, another industry, who knows? A younger, leaner Joaquim Pheonix might’ve aspired to look like Faf, and at the very least auditioned to be his stunt double. Listen to that deep drawl and then imagine a slow, dirty beat synced to it in the background. Turn that gold up.
What has any of this to do with anything? Nothing, it could be argued, except that, as we’re in that time of our lives again when South Africa and captains of South Africa come into sharp view, it does feel relevant. Not least because in sport-speak, these traits might translate as leaderly. The guy other guys play for, fight for, live for, die with, learn from, are inspired by, want to be like. And because he’s now in that space where at the other end there is only the dark, or the light and no dimmers.
It’s not as if he is unused to this, or has been hiding from public view. South Africa are not the Big Three but they play in enough big bilateral series for du Plessis to be a big name, the biggest in South Africa. But there remains an accidental, almost hidden element to how he has emerged into this moment, ahead of his first game as South Africa captain at a World Cup.
It could’ve gone so many ways. He could’ve been a rugby player. He could’ve said yes to a Kolpak deal. He could’ve been lost in the dazzle of best friend, schoolmate, contemporary, team-mate and full-time genius AB de Villiers. He could’ve lost himself trying to be one of the men to fill the giant-sized boots of Graeme Smith. It hasn’t gone any of those ways, which, by itself, is a mighty achievement.
But this is the World Cup and he is South Africa’s captain. That’s a different kind of public stare. This one burns. There’s no escaping it. Du Plessis has been to two World Cups but with Smith and then AB, and men like Dale Steyn and Hashim Amla, he was always part of the peripheral vision: one of the guys to look out for beyond those guys.
Lucky for him, captaincy is his thing. Not in the Mike Brearley way that it is his only thing, which is often how it can sound, but in the way that he has always wanted to be a captain because that is where the game is played out. “He was always a natural leader, always involved behind the scene as well,” his old school coach Deon Botes told the Indian Express recently. “Talking to his players, taking care of their weaknesses and insecurities.”
His most enjoyable moments as a cricketer, du Plessis said on Wednesday, are when he is captaining sides and especially this one. “I’m just excited that it’s another opportunity for me to go and do that. You know, get my brain nice and active on the field and tactically thinking about the game all the time. I just feel that puts me in the space that I want to be playing cricket.”
That space is what we, looking in, struggle to define, let alone quantify, residing as it does in that unknowable space inside the mind and gut of athletes, in the millions of little life experiences that have shaped them away from the public glare.
We’re often lucky enough to sense it. A little word to turn around a bowling spell, a decision to bat first when convention says otherwise, an unexpected declaration, managing and massaging an attack missing key strikers, moving a batsman up the order, not to mention a thousand tinkers a day here and there – this is the measure of du Plessis’ captaincy.
As are – sometimes overlooked in the captaincy love he does get – runs. As a batsman, he averages 11 runs more when captain, and scores nearly eight runs more per 100 balls. That jump holds true across formats. It is incredible, maybe not big four incredible, or even big six incredible (if you add de Villiers and David Warner to Virat Kohli, Steven Smith, Joe Root and Kane Williamson) but it’s incredible still. No one thinks to rank him among the modern greats of batting, and to be honest, that doesn’t feel like a gross injustice. But there’s not that many all-format batsmen out there with his range, able to bat all day to save a Test, to jumpstart a 50-over innings, or to be an intrinsic part of a wildly successful T20 franchise.
So, when he says as he did on Wednesday, that captaining his first game at a World Cup won’t really change the way he approaches captaincy, or the way he is, don’t believe him. It’ll probably make him even better.
And so, for all those unpractised surfer-cool vibes he gives off, for all the wisdom in how he understands now that he “wants to win cricket games” but doesn’t “need to win them”, know that inside of him must be something far less inert, some wheels forever turning away from prying eyes, something harder; a bit of the mongrel maybe. You can see him eventually becoming statesmanly, a voice on the game, in the way Smith is and de Villiers isn’t. But remember also that he was twice caught out for ball-tampering. He is, thankfully, a rich tapestry.
It isn’t darkness that awaits always, of course. Smith’s leadership was so successful that the two World Cup fails under him only get talked about every four years in between boatloads of respect. And de Villiers’ legend now straddles galaxies far beyond a mere World Cup blowout. Faf? If there is light at the end, we’re going to be changing the conversation about him be sure of that much.
“Hopefully I’m still cool,” he joked when asked about how he has changed over the years. You are, Faf, you are. And much, much more besides.