OPINION | The complexities surrounding Faf du Plessis' Proteas captaincy

Faf du Plessis (Gallo)
Faf du Plessis (Gallo)

Cape Town - After a 191-run loss to England at the Wanderers on Monday, Proteas captain Faf du Plessis acknowledged that it would take time for his side to get out of the current slump they find themselves in. 

This is a young group, Du Plessis said, and the rebuilding is only just beginning under the new leadership of head coach Mark Boucher and Director of Cricket Graeme Smith. 

Since the beginning of 2019, the Proteas have handed out 11 debuts in 11 Test matches while there were five debutants in the England series alone. 

It is clearly a period of renewal for South African cricket both on the field, where results have been alarmingly poor, and off the field where an administrative calamity ensued towards the end of last year. 

Few can argue that many of the players currently being backed are green at international level and will need time to find their feet, but the concern is instead centred around a perceived lack of depth.

Are the players who are being elevated to the Test stage good enough to make the jump up? Or are they being put there because, simply, there is nobody else to pick? Has the gap in quality between Test cricket and South African domestic cricket widened in recent years?

With the Proteas having lost eight of their last nine Test matches, there has been little evidence to suggest the game in South Africa is on the right track, but it is important to acknowledge that those results have come under three different head coaches. 

The one certainty now is that Boucher will be with this side until after the World Cup in 2023, providing a platform from where progress can begin, but what about Du Plessis?

Questions over the 35-year-old's future have been circling throughout this series, particularly on the Test front, where his form with the bat has been nowhere near good enough. Du Plessis averaged just 18.87 in the series while his tactics in the field were also criticised.

The 82-run stand shared between England No 10 Mark Wood and No 11 Stuart Broad on day two of the Wanderers Test, for example, was infuriating for Proteas fans as Du Plessis spread the field to the fence and watched on as runs leaked. 

It was a tactical decision that came across as negative and defeatist, and in those moments, it felt like we might be witnessing the end of the Du Plessis era on the Test stage. After the match, Du Plessis explained that his bowlers had been poor during that period and unable to bowl to the plan. 

"People want answers when the team is not doing well, and they look to your captain and coach first," he acknowledged.

Regardless of your views on Du Plessis over the last year - the 2-0 loss to Sri Lanka last February is where things started going awry - his track record in all formats remains impressive.

Test series wins against Australia, home and away, and a famous Test series win over India at home have given him 18 wins out of 36 (50%) in the format. Before 2019, he had won 17 out of 27 (62.9%). 

In ODI cricket he has captained the Proteas to victory 28 times out of 39 (73.68%), while his T20 record is 23 wins from 37 (63.51%). 

Numbers aside, Du Plessis has displayed a natural ability to make new additions to the squad feel immediately welcome. It is a valuable trait, particularly now when so many are looking for guidance in these dark times.

While cricket in this country has been drenched in uncertainty and underperformance, Du Plessis has remained a constant through his commitment to the cause and he has fronted up every time stones have been hurled in his direction. 

He will not be around forever, and he has spoken publicly on the need to facilitate a succession plan that identifies new leaders to take the country forward, but that process is proving to be more difficult than it seems. 

If not Du Plessis, then who? It is a question with no clear answer. 

South Africa play just two more Test matches in 2020 with the focus this year on white ball cricket and the T20 World Cup in Australia from October. That tournament has long been identified as a possible international swansong for Du Plessis, who has already stepped down from the ODI captaincy to make way for Quinton de Kock.

If Du Plessis only has two Test matches left, would it not be in the Proteas' best interests to back their new captain, whoever that is, from that West Indies series in July? What can be the benefit in holding onto Du Plessis for that little while longer?

But there are no obvious successors.

Dean Elgar will be 33 by the time the Proteas go to the Caribbean and is hardly a long-term solution, Rassie van der Dussen has played just four Test matches and a lot of question marks remain over De Kock's leadership style, particularly when it comes to the longer format.  

Aiden Markram, often tipped as a future Test captain, is out injured and far from guaranteed of a Test spot when fit while Temba Bavuma, vice-captain as recently as three months ago, was dropped at the start of the England series. 

Nobody stands out.

In T20 cricket, the situation is more straightforward. Regardless of what has happened in Test and ODI cricket over the last year, Du Plessis could very well remain the best natural fit when it comes to this year's T20 World Cup. 

If De Kock excels as ODI skipper, then the natural progression will be for him to take the T20 reins when Du Plessis steps away. That transition should happen relatively smoothly. 

On the Test front, though, things are more complex. 

While the rest of the year is quiet, the Proteas have a bumper 2020/21 Test summer that will include matches currently scheduled against Sri Lanka (home, 2 Tests), Pakistan (away, 2 Tests) and Australia (home, 3 Tests) before the end of March 2021. 

By then, Boucher would have been in charge of the Proteas for over a year and his period of renewal should be well on the way towards restoring the faith of the South African public. 

If a new captain was fielded in July in the West Indies, then he would at least have some experience under his belt by the time that 2020/21 season gets underway. But, if there is no better alternative, should Du Plessis be convinced into sticking around for another year?

If he does find some form, then longevity will not be an issue for him. 

If he can't get to that block in early 2021, though, then there doesn't seem to be much logic in prolonging the inevitable. It them becomes a job for Boucher and Smith to start working with whoever the new Test captain is as soon as possible. 

Smith said last week that he would be having "robust" discussions with Du Plessis after the England series to try and map out the way forward. 

Those discussions need to happen sooner rather than later.  

The one comfort and something that Du Plessis has shown over the years is that he will always do what he thinks is best for South African cricket. There will be no egos involved in the decision-making. 

Leaving is never easy, but it is often necessary. 

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