(Photo: Getty Images)
By Neil Manthorp
Some captains lead because they read the game better than their team mates which means predicting what is about to happen next and either preventing it or expanding on it. Others sense a mood from the body language of a team mate or member of the opposition and act accordingly.
Others genuinely, and successfully, trust their instincts without ever knowing why they have them, and their technical knowledge and reading of the pitch and outfield conditions to make tactical decisions which give their team an advantage.
Faf du Plessis does all of those things, but none of them are what makes him different to previous South African captains. His strength, you might say, is getting ‘to the heart of the matter’. This comes in four parts, the first being the very obvious but still often under-appreciated truth that the more ‘negative’ emotions a sportsman has in his mind, the less likely he is to perform at his best.
We’re talking mistrust, doubt, resentment and confusion before the coin has even been tossed rather than how to play off-spin from around the wicket or the best way to avoid being hit by the short ball.
Second, the captain needs to be perceptive enough to recognise the presence of those emotions. Third, he must have the courage to ‘go there’ and, finally, the wherewithal to facilitate the process of removing or at least placing those emotions into quarantine for the duration of a match or a tour.
In August last year an extended national squad – all the centrally contracted players and a number of fringe ‘A’ team players – embarked on what was quaintly called a ‘Culture Camp’. It was highly secret and the players were all asked not to reveal the contents of their discussions or the events on the programme. A professional facilitator was employed.
We do know that, at the heart of it, was the quota system which had recently been bolstered and, at Du Plessis’ insistence, made public rather than remaining a wishy-washy wish-list that was passed around with nod and wink, or grimace.
We can also guess that someone, at the beginning of this camp, possibly Du Plessis, may have said something like: “So, our bosses want to label us. They want to call us black, white, black African. Aren’t we all African? Aren’t we all cricketers? Look at the people in this room and tell them what you see. Is it the colour of their skin, or is it their ability as a cricketer?”
Following two days of sometimes painfully honest disclosure and affirmation, the Proteas followed their most disappointing 12 months of the last 15 years with four consecutive Test series victories, including Australia away in November, and a climb from seventh in the ICC rankings to second.
Similar successes were enjoyed in ODIs (discounting the familiar ICC tournament meltdown). Du Plessis can be as hard as anyone in the game if and when that is needed, and knows exactly how to get under the skin of the opposition. He can draw the sting of an attack, bowling, verbal or media, and deflect the arrows away from his team.
He’s not afraid of making ruthless decisions regarding teammates, like omitting popular opener Stephen Cook from the tour party and dropping JP Duminy for this Test match, but during the heat of battle he remains so calm under fire that teammates begin to feel he is armour-plated. A long-hop or half volley from the leader of his attack, at a crucial time, will not be met with a thunder face and “what the f*** are you doing?!”
Instead, the disarming, toothy smile will be followed by: “Everything alright? Ok, that’s your one for the over. You’re better than him and you’re just about to show him. Want another slip?”
Du Plessis said yesterday that Duminy had spent the 24 hours since being told (by du Plessis) of his axing doing everything he could to help the team.
“That’s crucial to what this team is all about; it’s a central theme of where we have come from and where we want to go.”
It is also exactly the reason they have consistently over-achieved and performed so much more powerfully than the sum of their individual parts.
To be fair to Graeme Smith, he started the process of emotional clarity and honesty towards the end of his career and they reached the pinnacle of the Test game following victory against England here five years ago. But he had Kallis, De Villiers, Amla, Boucher and Steyn in his team… and himself.
Du Plessis has none of those riches. His best hope is to get to the heart of the matter. The performance at Lord’s was only a couple of marks higher than a shambles, much as they may kid themselves otherwise. He needs to perform a handbrake turn in an articulated lorry heading in the wrong direction.
He says this Test match feels just like any other. But then, he would.