Proteas

COMMENT: Skimpy Test roster will have helped trigger Faf's stepdown

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Faf du Plessis (AFP)
Faf du Plessis (AFP)
  • The no-show of Australia, a team he especially loved duelling, may have been last straw as Du Plessis stepped down from Tests.
  • He would almost certainly have turned 37 still with little clarity on a healthy future Test roster for the Proteas.
  • Du Plessis switching his focus to white-ball activity could have sound SA spinoffs for successive T20 World Cups.


What is really left as a carrot for me in the Test landscape?

That is almost certain to have been a pivotal thought in the mind of Faf du Plessis as the Proteas veteran made his decision this week to bow out of the five-day game after a 69-cap career that began with a combined 671 minutes of legendary personal obduracy against Australia at Adelaide in November 2012.

For one thing, as the sands of time trickle out for him more broadly as a professional cricketer, there seemed little prospect of South Africa - the team he used to captain with considerable aplomb, single-mindedness and enterprise - getting any further Test combat beneath the belt before the advent of his 37th birthday on 13 July.

Things can change fast in these volatile, pandemic-dominated times but as things stand, the national team seem unlikely to return to Test whites until the height of the next, 2021/22 SA season when India will be - or are at least are scheduled to be - particularly welcome guests for a series here.

Under such circumstances, and as I lamented on this platform very recently, the Proteas will have completed a nadir, mere four Tests in the 2021 calendar year (if you assume that the first clash against the Indians may well be a Boxing Day one at year’s end).

South Africa would, by extension, complete three years - since 2019 - with a miserly average of just over five Tests per year in the period, a situation unheard of for any of the increasingly controversial “Big Three” commercial powers of India, England and Australia whose feverish commitment to playing each other as often and fulsomely as possible only gathers steam.

This creeping imbalance, conversely, provides a decreasing incentive for players from the less moneyed countries to wish to pursue major landmarks in the game’s most time-honoured environment.

Du Plessis may well have been doubly peeved by the fiercely debated Australian late pull-out from their intended three-Test series on our shores shortly; he has always managed to get under the skins of our great southern foes in varying ways.

Whether as skipper or, initially, rank-and-file team member, he has been part of four engrossing series against the Baggy Greens, featuring three South African triumphs, including two on enemy soil.

The infamously fractious, scandal-scarred second home one, in 2017/18, was more special than most as - under his command - it finally broke a strange duck against the Australians on our pitches that had stretched back to the immortal 1969/70 clean sweep under Ali Bacher.

There is every chance, then, that he would have considered the latest visit by the Aussies a fitting way to bring down the curtain on his Test career, now abruptly ended three matches “early”.

Du Plessis has always loved a testosterone-laden scrap, which goes a long way to explaining why his average (46.73) against the ever-truculent Australians, perhaps, comfortably exceeded his overall Test one of 40.02 … the latter figure just inside holy grail territory for batsmen and another quiet reason for him pulling the plug at this juncture, stats gurus may surmise.

Maybe just a little less influentially, another catalyst for the right-hander’s decision to quit Tests could have been the postponement/abandonment of the scheduled tour of the West Indies earlier in mid-2020.

That exercise would have been the Proteas’ - already ridiculously overdue - first visit to the Caribbean for Tests since distant 2010, a 2-0 triumph under the charge of Du Plessis’s soon to be first captain at that level, the iconic Graeme Smith.

Irritatingly, it deprived Du Plessis of boasting the achievement of visiting the homes of all the major, most traditional Test-playing countries.

Otherwise, in Test individual landmark terms, the former Affies schoolboy had little left of note to tick off: he had reached 4 000 runs in the format against Sri Lanka at Centurion a few weeks ago, in an innings that also marked his 10th century in the format and highest career score (199).

Hanging in for the scheduled India series on home turf next season would also not have been any reason for special poignancy or relevance to him; he had been at the helm when they were last here in 2017/18 and he led the Proteas’ cause in a 2-1 victory over Virat Kohli and company.

If anything, Du Plessis has probably become the sort of increasingly long-in-the-tooth cricketer from outside the current, self-anointed elite three nations only looking with envy and frustration as those sides effectively pig out on the major, four- or five-Test series.

Increasingly, he will be noticing his own country largely picking up scraps wherever possible: certainly there are no series of anything more than three Tests on the short- to medium-term horizon for the Proteas, and several likely to be curtailed to a rather soulless, hurried two.

No, the time seemed dead right, really, for Francois du Plessis - at times frontman of a happy, cohesive, near-mean SA machine in the Test arena - to prioritise white-ball activity.

He is still producing sparkling figures there, very much including for the national cause, and with two World Cups in the Twenty20 format looming in rapid succession, his stated big focus on those can only be branded reassuring news.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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