Du Plessis’ hard exterior cracks as Proteas plummet

When Faf du Plessis assembled his Proteas team in May, he knew that he had collected a unit that was the weakest of any that had gone before them.

FILE: Proteas captain Faf du Plessis looks on while fielding during the 2019 Cricket World Cup group stage match against Bangladesh at The Oval in London on 2 June 2019. Picture: AFP

LONDON - This might feel like familiar territory, but it isn’t.

The rain in 1992, Brian Lara’s masterclass in 1996, the brain-fart in 1999, the miscalculation in 2003, the misplaced chutzpah in 2007, the stumbles in the outfield in 2011, Grant Elliott’s maximum in 2015; South African cricket fans have experienced just about every sort of heartache one can feel in a World Cup.

But this one is different. Unlike those previous editions, South Africa arrived with little expectation of winning. Even in 1992, where Kepler Wessels took a group of World Cup rookies to Australia and New Zelaand, there was unbridled optimism as they set sail towards an unknown horizon.

When Faf Du Plessis assembled his Proteas team in May, he knew that he had collected a unit that was the weakest of any that had gone before them. He made no bones about it. The batting was short of stardom. The bowling was short of experience. Fitness and form robbed him of players in their pomp. The economic inequities of the world meant that others who may have improved the team were earning a living elsewhere.

“I want to win cricket matches, I don’t need to win cricket matches,” was one of Du Plessis’ early comments that revealed an acceptance that whatever would be, would be. He was diluting expectations while espousing a chilled out energy within the camp. Ottis Gibson’s Caribbean accent added to this feeling. They’d try their best. Just don’t bet the house on them.

Du Plessis knows how to play the game of captaincy. He deals with the press in an admirable manner and conducts himself with humility. But he also backs that up with bite. Which other captain in world cricket today could diffuse tensions wearing nothing but a bath towel, as he did at Kingsmead when David Warner and a pack of Australian fast bowlers had Quinton de Kock surrounded last year?

Mongrel and manners. Fire and friendliness. That has been the Du Plessis way. But since arriving in the UK for what would be the biggest test of his tenure, he has sorely lacked in one department as he has stumbled from one press conference to the next trying to keep the pretence of the other.

“It chips away at you,” he said after the 49 run loss to Pakistan that established the 2019 World Cup as South Africa’s worst. “You know, you try very, very hard and then the same thing happens again and you go back and try and train hard again and you make the same mistake again.

“It chips away at your confidence. It chips away at your ego. It chips away at you as a player. The responsibility lies with every player to try and make sure that he comes to the park and gives everything. If confidence is an issue, you need to sort that out yourself. Team confidence is low.”

You can see he is trying. At one point his stoic exterior gave way to exacerbation as he publicly remonstrated with de Kock for not acting like a professional on the field and completing a simple single. De Kock himself took issue with Rabada for not bowling bouncers when a short leg had just been stationed for exactly that purpose during Pakistan's innings.

This does not appear to be a team falling apart at the seams. There has been no talk - at least none that has been openly shared - of any major hostilities. At training the players undergo their warmups and drills with smiles on their faces. No apparent cliques have developed. They are not failing because they are disjointed in the dressing room. They simply haven’t performed when it mattered and now there are a handful of players who will forever be tainted by the ignominy of 2019.

Du Plessis is one of them. JP Duminy, Hashim Amla, Imran Tahir and Chris Morris have certainly had their final chance of winning a World Cup. Others, such as David Miller, might never get another shot. Does this sobering thought weigh on the captain?

“I’d be lying if I said it didn’t,” he said. “As a captain and a player I am very proud. I’ve always said that the most enjoyment that I get from the game playing for South Africa is captaining this side. The fact that we are playing below our potential is not something that sits well with me.

“If I could I would get out my magic wand and get some runs on the table for our batters but I can’t. I can’t control everything. I have to make sure I put my head on my pillow at night knowing I’ve done everything I can.”

Has he done everything he can? Has he galvanised the side to be more than the sum of their parts? “The one area where I could have done it differently was having more players rest before the tournament, but that’s not in my hands.”

Kagiso Rabada admitted that in hindsight he should have come home sooner from the IPL but refused to be questioned on whose decision that was and why no one insisted that he do exactly that. Dale Steyn left for India a fit and firing fast bowler but returned with a new shoulder injury which meant he wouldn’t bowl a ball in anger in the UK.

“A few guys came into the tournament not fresh,” Du Plessis added. “That is not an excuse. That is just a fact. With KG, you can see that his pace is probably a little down from where he normally is.”

So should Du Plessis take responsibility for managing his players’ workloads? Perhaps. Both captain and young tearaway were cagey regarding the decision making process and all may only be revealed once the dust has settled. For now, a proud leader of his national team must find a way of resting his head on his pillow at night while accepting he has presided over the worst World Cup in South Africa’s history.