Graeme Smith hung up the armband after eight years as captain and eloped with Eurovision backing singer Morgan Deane to Ireland, where the two got engaged. A fairytale ending straight out a Hollywood sports drama, except it came after another unceremonious exit from an ICC event. While the rest of the South African contingent returned home to face the music after the quarterfinal exit at the 2011 World Cup, Smith’s no-show further angered the fans.
The bravest man in world cricket, who took guard at the Sydney Cricket Ground against Peter Siddle and Mitchell Johnson with a broken arm and his own blood injected into the injured elbow, was nowhere to be found. And nobody could say he didn’t warn them. Sticks and stones could break his bones, but after the capitulation in Dhaka, Smith confessed what really hurt him.
“When we go home, there’s going to be swords and daggers.”
Francois du Plessis had done the headless-chicken run before.
In his second one-dayer, an over after childhood friend AB de Villiers’ dismissal, du Plessis nudged one to square leg, rushed, turned back four feet from a shouting JP Duminy, and was done in by a Virat Kohli-MS Dhoni combination.
A couple of months later, he would do it again at the 2011 World Cup. In the group match against England where South Africa, chasing 171, fell six runs short. On a crumbling Chepauk pitch, England spinners put the squeeze on, but South Africa trudged along until De Villiers got out at 124/4. Two balls later, du Plessis ran. His flick had been stopped at short leg, but the batsman was already halfway down the track.
But the costliest of them all was in that quarterfinal against New Zealand. South Africa were a decent 3/121 chasing 221. Jacques Kallis and JP Duminy threw their wickets and that sinking feeling returned. Du Plessis then hit his second delivery straight to midwicket and took off. De Villiers, South Africa’s man in form, responded but had no chance. South Africa then lost the next five wickets for 51 runs. After the defeat, former coach Mickey Arthur quipped: “The monkey’s almost become a gorilla now.”
Faf has done it since, notably twice in five balls in the virtual quarterfinal of the 2017 Champions Trophy against India. Cruising along at 140/2, he dabbed Ravindra Jadeja to point, yelled ‘yes’ and took off. De Villiers again had no chance. Du Plessis then doubled it up, edging one to short third-man and responding to non-striker David Miller’s call, before turning back almost at a whim, diving to reach the crease not before the ball but his own teammate.
Du Plessis took “full responsibility for AB’s run-out”. “Obviously, he is a big player for us and he was looking good and it was a crunch time in the game. Big mistake from my part running AB out.”
Now, there’s a difference between simply being a bad runner, and an indecisive one. Du Plessis has been run out six times in 138 ODIs. Inzamam was at 19. Du Plessis, in cricketing parlance, is a ‘busy’ player. Not one for faffing about, he accumulates runs and is tremendously quick between wickets. He is also often a jumpy, nervy bundle of energy when he walks in, eager to get off strike. The speed and nerves may spell bad news for non-strikers. Quick singles with du Plessis are not for ones with commitment issues. There’s no telling if their partner will stay the course and scamper through, or do a sharp, random 180.
Which means there’s a 50 per cent chance there wouldn’t have been a run-out had du Plessis faced Damien Fleming that fateful 1999 evening in Birmingham. For Allan Donald never left his crease and du Plessis would have wait-yes-no’d back to his. South Africa are back in England for a World Cup, and du Plessis travels not just as a batting mainstay or a World Cupper. He leads the charge.
It’s difficult to talk about South Africa and not bring up the C-word. Dropped catches, botched chases and heartbreaking losses to Australia, New Zealand, India and Duckworth-Lewis are well documented in the ever-growing literature surrounding the country’s failures in ICC events, to an extent that every defeat is now conveniently filed under the same tag. What constitutes a choke? Graeme Smith charging down to Nathan Bracken and getting castled? Sure. A Kiwi playing the innings of his life to win a thriller? Not so much.
Paddy Upton, the mental conditioning coach who combined with Gary Kirsten to orchestrate India’s 2011 World Cup triumph, feels ‘chokers’ is an unfair label.
“Only one team wins the World Cup. One can say all of the other teams choked then,” Upton told The Indian Express. “It has been spoken about so much that it is set in their minds. Even going to this World Cup, some players view that they are slightly burdened by the label and when they get into high-pressure situations, it pops up and hijacks them.”
Knowing they can win shouldn’t be a problem for South Africa, the most successful one-day team with a win percentage of 63.83. Knowing they can win the big ones is the issue. Upton says the difference is between believing and knowing.
“Australia go into this World Cup knowing that they can win it. India, some of the players who have experienced it, go in knowing they can win. South Africa can only go in with belief. They don’t know what it’s like to win a World Cup. They don’t know if they have what it takes.”
A recent example came at the fag end of the IPL season. In Qualifier 2, a mix-up off the third ball prompted du Plessis and Shane Watson to take a combined six turns in the middle of the pitch before surviving. In the final, with CSK well along their way to victory, du Plessis went for a fourth straight boundary and got stumped. Watson, meanwhile, stepped up on both occasions.
Opposed to du Plessis’s characteristically consistent season, Watson was struggling for runs. But Watson, a two-time World Cup winner and twice man of the final in the Champions Trophy, knows what winning the big ones feels like. Upton adds that coupling lack of confidence with arrogance adds to the problem.
“I think machoness is a problem in non-Asian countries. Trying to pretend you are too tough. I do think that South Africans generally tend to act more macho than what they actually are and that bites them in pressure moments,” said the South African. “As opposed to being real authentic and having the correct level of acceptance of vulnerability.”
That brings us to the press conference before the 2011 quarterfinal, where the seeds of the impending South African implosion were planted.
Six days in Dhaka was an anxious wait for South Africa, and du Plessis was handed the media duties. Ahead of the match, du Plessis bragged about his days playing at Lancashire, and how the fast-deteriorating pitches during the county season made him a better player of spin. Du Plessis then signed off with, “which probably makes me one of the world’s most experienced 26-year-olds.”
It wasn’t until Scott Styris and Albie Morkel assembled in the Chennai Super Kings dugout a month later that the former revealed Faf’s words gave New Zealanders all the motivation they needed. Brendon McCullum was in Du Plessis’s ear when he made the ill-advised call which led to de Villiers’s dismissal. It also explains why the Kiwis, led by captain Daniel Vettori and 12th man Kyle Mills, ganged up on du Plessis in the aftermath, as he mouthed and shoved back.
While not the world’s most experienced, du Plessis was still a 26-year-old less than three months into his international career. The cricketing baptism by fire came before du Plessis, who grew up a Christian, found God and got baptised in 2013. “I didn’t understand baptism. I come from a Dutch reform background, and baptism was something… a baby in front, put some juice on his head,” du Plessis says, to laughs from the gathering at the Shofar Stellenbosch Church in a 2015 video. “But I realised the need. I used to swear a lot. You go to a school of boys, you try to be the macho man. My language was filthy. I didn’t want to be that guy anymore… Even in the first couple of IPL seasons, I was a completely different guy. I was living it up with all of them. Now, I’m not the cool kid in the back of the bus any more.”
His first rendezvous with the World Cup was also before his Test debut against Australia at Adelaide, 2012. A nervous wreck, Du Plessis slipped out of one of his boots and was scared that he might get timed out in his first Test innings. He scored 78 and an unbeaten 110 where he batted all through the last day to secure a famous draw. Another second-innings hundred against India in 2013 took South Africa within eight runs of completing the highest successful chase of 458.
Deon Botes — coach at the Affies Boys School in Pretoria whose pass-outs include Jacques Rudolph, naturalised Kiwis Kruger van Wyk and Neil Wagner as well as the star pair of du Plessis and de Villiers — remembers Faf always excelled when put under the pump. “Yes, you can say him and AB got run out a few times,” Botes admits with a chuckle. “But Faf has always been very dependable. He has been that sort of a player from the very beginning. In that sense, he is even better than AB because there is no flamboyant batting. Of course, if AB bats 50 overs. he can win any game. But actually, Faf was the one boy who got us most wins. I as a coach too always tried to put them in as many high-pressure situations as possible.
“Faf struggled against Imran Khan (Indian-origin off-spinner who played one Test) in school cricket. In an important match, AB offered to take most of the strike against him. But Faf stepped up and got us the W.” The schoolmate — who came back from the boundary in Dhaka to shield his friend from the verbal onslaught in the aftermath of the run-out — and his offers won’t be at du Plessis’s disposal in England. De Villiers’s retirement a year out from the World Cup has robbed South Africa and its captain of a foil. “The bowling line-up is second to none. But we are a batter short,” says Botes. “AB is a big loss. He is a superstar and could make a difference to this line-up.”
South Africa travel to England with an enviable bowling attack, headlined by Imran Tahir and Kagiso Rabada — IPL’s most successful spinner and pacer this year. The battling department, however, doesn’t stack up to Protean line-ups of the past.
Hashim Amla seems on the decline. Quinton de Kock blows hot and cold, as does David Miller. Aiden Markram and Rassie van der Dussen are obvious talents, but untested in a high-stakes scenarios. Du Plessis, thus, is the batting fulcrum as well as the leader. The silver lining is that like du Plessis, his South African team is going about its business while staying under the radar.
“I can see Faf’s impact on this South African team,” says Botes. “ They will go in believing. He was always a natural leader, always involved behind the scene as well. Talking to his players, taking care of their weaknesses and insecurities.”
But with time for behind-the-scene tinkering over, du Plessis will be in sharp spotlight with the ‘chokers’ tag the albatross around his neck. Graeme Smith winced at every mention of the word. “Ultimately, the thing that gets to you about the choker thing, — especially as captain — is you get asked about it a million times. That’s something Faf will have to steel himself for,” Smith said earlier this year. De Villiers seemed to embrace it. At the outgoing presser last week, du Plessis just sat back, arms crossed and smiled.
“It is a baggage. They will highlight the baggage. They will replay the baggage. It’s a big mirror in front of you all the time,” said du Plessis. “We have told the boys to go and be free. Nobody needs to be a Superman.”
More than half of the squad is going to their first World Cup, and in theory, are without a baggage of failures. They’re led by a player who’s neither a gritty captain nor a superstar, but a classy, understated batsman with a history of running out his partners to trigger collapses.
How well this South African team does depends on how well Faf keeps his head.