South Africa gear up for new era under ‘aggressive’ du Plessis

In the winter of 2014, South African cricket was faced with a question that it had not known for more than a decade: who should captain its Test team? For almost 11 years the duty had been carried on the broad shoulders of Graeme Smith with such surety that South Africans forgot what it might be like to not know who their best leader was. Smith’s departure was also swift and unexpected, coming at a time when the identity of his successor was far from obvious.

The three main men who lined up to replace him were Hashim Amla, AB de Villiers and Faf du Plessis. Little did they know that within two years they would all experience a taste of the job. In fact, with the possibility of Faf du Plessis being banned for the first Test against Sri Lanka, it is not inconceivable that another entrant in that 2014 captaincy contest, JP Duminy, could get a short look-in himself.

Smith’s incredible longevity created an interesting effect in the minds of South African cricket followers, his tenure lasting so long that he came to embody the quintessential South African leader. Physically intimidating, square-jawed and reluctant to give an inch, Smith possessed all the qualities that South Africans like to see in their sportsmen. It did not mean that they always liked him, but it earned their respect to the point where his position was rarely questioned.

Equally rare was a proper analysis of Smith’s captaincy methods, in part because his style was so middle-of-the-road, traditional and conservative that there were few unusual decisions to merit any determined introspection. Instead, he captained largely by averages, relying on the raw talent within his team to see South Africa through. In the second half of his tenure, when South Africa boasted more than their fair share of the top players in the world, that captaincy by averages worked even if it never thrilled.

The tenures of Amla and de Villiers were short, but provided little more in the way of excitement – Amla’s positive declaration during his first Test in Sri Lanka excepted. But in his four Tests as stand-in captain, du Plessis has provided hints that he may yet step away from the conservative trends in South African cricket at a time when the game is evolving faster than ever before – a change epitomised by his flash declaration on the first evening of the day-night Test in Adelaide.

“I think in terms of what we want to achieve as a team is to be more aggressive, and that goes through everything,” he said at Newlands on Wednesday (December 14). “That (declaration) was just an aggressive approach, and I’ll always look to take the aggressive approach. Hopefully, it pays off more than it doesn’t.”

Du Plessis admitted that the need to be more creative and impulsive stems from the fact that his batting does not command the same respect as players such as his immediate predecessor, de Villiers. “AB is a better cricketer, so I have to use other things to make guys buy into what I want them to buy into,” said du Plessis. “AB just has to walk onto the field and then it’s already happening. For me it’s harder work I suppose. I always try and challenge the team. That’s my biggest strength as a captain.”

It could easily be argued, then, that du Plessis has become captain at just the right time for South Africa as they lose a flurry of promising players to Kolpak deals in English cricket. Like du Plessis, South Africa might yet find that they are less able to rely on their talent, making inventive, thoughtful decision-making all the more important in the bid to maintain or improve standards.

While Smith might not have had a clear successor, his sudden retirement was softened by the work that had been done by Gary Kirsten, Paddy Upton and Russell Domingo in the years leading up to it. In his short time as South Africa’s coach, Kirsten created a culture of mutual respect in a camp that had previously been too hierarchical. The advantages of a happy off-field collective were impressed upon the squad, along with the need to be more rounded human beings. The inevitability of occasional defeat was accepted, and a team that had previously been too prone to strong emotions in good times and bad began to treat victory and defeat with a similar magnanimity.

It is a culture that has the ability to sustain a side through rough patches – as shown this year when the Proteas bounced back from chaotic, injury-plagued series defeats to India and England to beat New Zealand at home and Australia away.

“For me it’s just about making sure that the cricket side of things is almost a bonus, because the stuff that happens off the field is something where I spend a lot of time and energy making sure that it’s a happy team, and a team that wants to get better,” du Plessis explained. “If you do that, the cricket side of things should benefit. It’s proven over the last while, when we went from a team that was really inconsistent to a team that became consistent.”

South Africa might feel as though they are out of the woods, but 2017 is set to test them like never before. The home series against Sri Lanka is followed by three Tests in New Zealand against a Black Caps side that is gradually improving. The winter includes a full tour of England, before home series against Bangladesh, India and Australia over the 2017/18 season. Du Plessis termed it the biggest year of cricket he has seen since becoming a Protea. If the eventful start of his captaincy career is anything to go by, it could be quite a ride.

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