Faf du Plessis speaks at a press conference before a T20 training session
© Getty Images


Faf du Plessis: in the skin of a lion

Alpha male, natural leader, Australia's nemesis - he has worn, and shed, many identities as one of South Africa's most charismatic players

Daniel Gallan  |  

A steady drizzle compounded the melancholic mood around Southampton as South Africa prepared for their next match of the 2019 World Cup. Three straight defeats had brought their campaign to the brink. A sense of ennui mingled with the moisture in the air. A pack of hungover journalists lurked on the periphery of the indoor nets of the Rose Bowl like carrion birds, eager to pick at the bones of whichever unfortunate soul was served up at that afternoon's press conference.

"Faf would like a word," the media manager said laconically. South Africa's beleaguered captain had taken issue with something one of our party had written about him. Following the third of their losses, Faf du Plessis had shirked his post-match duties by sending out Chris Morris to explain why yet another tournament would end in ignominy. The journalist had called du Plessis' leadership credentials into question.

Upending convention, du Plessis, still in his pads, walked over to where we were gathered, pulled up a chair, and began an open dialogue about responsibility and commitment. Despite the power imbalance, du Plessis listened, accepted the journalist's take, shook hands and made a vague promise to do better. For what it's worth, he would never dispatch a deputy to speak on his team's behalf again.

ESPNcricinfo's Sharda Ugra captured a few shots of the exchange on her phone. "You don't know how lucky you are," she said while sharing the photos. "No Indian captain these days would talk to journalists like that."

"I've always valued honesty," du Plessis told the Cricket Monthly shortly before his retirement from Test cricket in February. "I understand that journalists have a job to do but if I feel it gets personal then I want to set the record straight. There weren't any hard feelings. I think we reached an understanding."

Real talk: du Plessis takes questions from journalists after South Africa's third consecutive loss at the 2019 World Cup

Real talk: du Plessis takes questions from journalists after South Africa's third consecutive loss at the 2019 World Cup Sharda Ugra / © ESPNcricinfo Ltd

Du Plessis's desire to be understood is a key thread to his narrative. A superstar athlete seemingly carved from the purest marble but laced with a vulnerability that could be read as insecurity. On the surface he presents as the quintessential South African alpha male, but he has rewritten the script on what it means to be a Proteas captain by bringing a softer touch to the role than his predecessors.

On the field he amassed 11,198 international runs and established himself as a modern great of the white-ball game: in the last four years, only Virat Kohli, Ross Taylor and Rohit Sharma have a higher average among batters with more than 1000 ODI runs. du Plessis supplemented this reliable run-getting with elite-level fielding and is still, at nearly 37, one of the most athletic players in the world. His captaincy record was hampered by the transitional team he was duty-bound to shepherd, his own performances hamstrung at times by boardroom maladies and bitter culture wars. Even so, he won 62% of his 112 matches in charge.

© ESPNcricinfo Ltd

"I hope my story resonates with people," said du Plessis. "Hopefully I'm remembered as someone who was South African through and through. I gave as long as I could for my country. I put my own needs after the team's. People maybe don't know that to be the case, but I'm hoping that my actions speak that story."

Born in Pretoria on July 13, 1984, Francois du Plessis was raised in a traditionally conservative Afrikaans home. His father, also named Francois, played rugby for Northern Transvaal and imbued his son with a strong sense of discipline and hard work. There is one account, as told by his high-school coach, of the young Faf getting kicked out of his father's car and forced to walk home as punishment for a sustained sulk following a poor on-field performance.

He attended the elite sports nursery colloquially known as Affies, officially called the Afrikaanse Hoër Seunskool (the Afrikaans Boy's High School) in Pretoria. Among his classmates were Springbok rugby player Pierre Spies, cricketer Heino Kuhn, and the best man at his wedding, AB de Villiers.

"He would slouch in class and if it was hot, he'd kick his shoes off," says Deon Botes, du Plessis' first team coach and economics teacher. "I wasn't surprised to see him cover his arms in tattoos. His personality was always like that. He wasn't particularly focused and his grades hovered around 60%. But he always knew where he wanted to go. He was so impressive on a cricket field."

du Plessis announced himself in Tests with a stonewalling century on debut, against Australia in 2012

du Plessis announced himself in Tests with a stonewalling century on debut, against Australia in 2012 © Getty Images

By the end of his first school year du Plessis was representing the 1st XI - before either de Villiers or Kuhn - and soon established himself as a legspinning allrounder and a confident captain. Once, after a narrow loss to a cross-town rival that ended a run of 33 matches undefeated, du Plessis gave his coach clear instruction on how to conduct himself.

"He basically told me to keep quiet," Botes explains. "He said he'd never speak to me again if I criticised the team after such a tight game. It's hard to explain what that's like for a school coach. He had this way of standing up for his players. Even in class he'd tell teachers if they'd crossed a line. He had that confidence to look me in the eye and tell me to stay out of it. Throughout my 23 years not many kids have done that."

This combative nature would be a hallmark throughout du Plessis' journey. Two of his most famous Test knocks were expressions of it: the match-saving 110 not out at Adelaide Oval on debut in 2012, and the six-and-a-half-hour 134 against India at the Wanderers the following year, which almost led to a record chase. It's far too easy to see similarities between a cricketer's character and the way they play the game, but in du Plessis' case it might work.

"I've always been that guy whose first instinct is 'go', not 'go away'," du Plessis explains, only partially dodging a question about schoolyard scraps. "I'm not necessarily proud of it but there have been times in my life where I've jumped in without thinking. On a few occasions I've come off second best. It's always been my instinct to climb in and help my mates without hesitation."

Perhaps it is this fighting spirit, combined with a strong sense of destiny, that allowed him to stay the course on the less glamorous path. In December 2004, just two years after graduating from high school, de Villiers opened the batting against England in a Test in Port Elizabeth. du Plessis, meanwhile, was still trying to break into his domestic franchise.

Best friends and classmates at Affies, AB de Villiers and du Plessis began their cricket journey together, but one took the less scenic route to the national side

Best friends and classmates at Affies, AB de Villiers and du Plessis began their cricket journey together, but one took the less scenic route to the national side © Associated Press

A day after de Villiers made his ODI debut against England in February 2005, du Plessis was playing semi-professional cricket for Northerns against Free State, hitting 71 and 29 to complement a five-wicket match haul. In April that year, de Villiers struck hundreds in consecutive Tests against West Indies; du Plessis contributed to Northerns' title charge in the SAA Provincial Challenge.

"I made peace with this very early in my career," du Plessis says. "AB and myself were always compared as these two great players, but at that time I was obviously a long way behind him. I told myself, 'This will take as long as it takes.' My destination was always the same."

What if du Plessis and de Villiers weren't such good friends, or went to different schools, or grew up in different cultures? Would this comparison have hung so heavy over the du Plessis narrative? Might he have achieved more? Did the spectre of a genius affect him?

"If it did, Faf never showed it," says Richard Pybus who took over as head coach of the Titans in 2005 and turned the perennial underachievers into a dynastic force that won six titles in four years. "I never once got the sense that Faf was jealous. I think he always viewed that relationship as motivational."

By the time de Villiers was hammering 146 against the West Indies at the 2007 World Cup, du Plessis was preparing for his second winter sojourn in the backwaters of England with Todmorden Cricket Club in Lancashire, having turned out for Mansfield Hosiery Mills Cricket Club in the Nottinghamshire League the previous year. "His agent told us that he was the next big thing to come out of South Africa," says Jon Henderson, who captained du Plessis at Todmorden. "I think the word he used was 'freak'."

Todmorden's flat pitch is usually a batting paradise and is used by Lancashire county second-stringers. Heavy rains changed all that and du Plessis, accustomed to the fast tracks of the Highveld, averaged just 28 across 24 matches. "He was a walking wicket all summer," Henderson recalls. "There were times when we wondered if they'd sent the right guy. But he was a terrific bloke. He got so involved in the club on and off the field."

du Plessis didn't make much of a splash during his time with Lancashire

du Plessis didn't make much of a splash during his time with Lancashire © Getty Images

Despite this poor return in England, two consecutive seasons averaging just under 40 with the Titans were enough to secure du Plessis a Kolpak contract with Lancashire for the 2008 county season, only partially distancing himself from his national side. He had previously turned down a three-year deal with Nottinghamshire as it included the condition that he make himself available for England.

"I just had this burning desire inside me to play for South Africa and I was too young to just give it up," du Plessis told ESPNcricinfo in 2012. Lancashire would allow him to keep that flame alive and to continue representing the Titans during the English winter.

"He was an outstanding fielder, maybe the best I've ever seen," says Mike Watkinson, Lancashire's cricket manager at the time. With the bat, du Plessis' yield was less spectacular. "If you bowled at his stumps he was immense and he'd take you down the ground or through the leg side. But he'd waft outside his off stump. He didn't fancy the moving Dukes. I wondered if he could overcome this technical flaw to succeed at the highest level. But he never lacked belief or work ethic. The innings he played on debut didn't surprise me."

That match-saving unbeaten 110 in the second innings in Adelaide is enshrined in South Africa's cricket folklore. It spanned 466 minutes across two days, consumed 376 deliveries, and ground Australian knees to powder - particularly Peter Siddle's. In South African cricket there are few things sweeter than sticking it to the Aussies. du Plessis would make this his signature move.

Du Plessis scored eight international centuries against the old enemy, four more than he did facing any other country. His 120 at the Wanderers in 2018 was the coup de grace in a bitterly fought four-Test contest. It made him the first South African captain to win a series in both countries.

Bittersweet: Australian fans express their feelings about the South Africa captain's choice of saliva-generating accessory after he was pulled up for ball-tampering

Bittersweet: Australian fans express their feelings about the South Africa captain's choice of saliva-generating accessory after he was pulled up for ball-tampering © Getty Images

But it was without a bat that du Plessis really got under Australian skins. In 2016, he was caught on camera applying residue and saliva from a mint-sweet onto the ball. South Africa won that match, in Hobart, by an innings and with it the series. du Plessis was found guilty of ball-tampering for the second time in his career, having previously fallen foul in 2013 in a Test against Pakistan, when he appeared to be rubbing the ball against a zipper on his trousers.

"There was a lot of heat on him from all angles, especially the Australian press," remembers JP Duminy, who played under du Plessis on 57 occasions. "They were barking up trees. Faf didn't do anything wrong. But his battle galvanised us as a team. He was a captain who cared so much about his players. The way he carried himself through that period has always stood out for me. He never once let his emotions get in his way."

Despite the team's unified show of support, led by Hashim Amla, who branded the affair a "farce", the images were damning. du Plessis was fined 100% of his match fee by the ICC and slapped with three demerit points. That he had history in this regard exacerbated the febrile atmosphere leading up to the dead-rubber finale in Adelaide.

The mood was further soured when Zunaid Wadee, a security guard with the South Africa team, shoved Nine Network reporter Will Crouch into a glass door at Adelaide airport. The journalist was overzealous in his attempt to procure a comment from du Plessis, but the sudden explosion of violence made for shocking viewing and cast the tourists as villains in the piece. Dale Steyn encapsulated the dismissive tone emanating from the South Africa camp when he tweeted: "Beaten with the bat. Beaten with the ball. Beaten in the field. Mentally stronger. Here's a idea, Let's blame it on a lollipop #soft."

"It was all so unpleasant and unnecessary, but it did take a toll on Faf, we could see that," Duminy says. "A weaker character would have folded under that pressure. He proved his strength by scoring a hundred straight after that. That innings typified what Faf is all about. I remember the mood in the change room when he was batting. Even though the team was struggling, it was one of the best feelings. We were so happy for him. It felt like justice."

du Plessis responded to pressure from the Australian press and fans with an unbeaten 118 in the final Test against Australia. South Africa won the series 2-1

du Plessis responded to pressure from the Australian press and fans with an unbeaten 118 in the final Test against Australia. South Africa won the series 2-1 © Getty Images

du Plessis knocked 118 unbeaten runs under lights before declaring the first innings of the day-night Test on 259. It was a shrewd move as it meant that David Warner, who had spent some time off the field, was unable to open the batting. In the end it didn't matter. Usman Khawaja's 145 set up a seven-wicket win for Australia, but du Plessis returned home in triumph, securing a hat-trick of series wins for his country in a once unconquerable land.

Adelaide airport was not the only time du Plessis was involved in a physically confrontation involving Australians. In 2018, just after tea was called on the fourth day of the first Test, in Durban, CCTV cameras captured a remarkable scene.

Grainy footage shows Australian players restraining Warner as he is ushered upstairs while seeming to hurl vitriol at Quinton de Kock. As the threat of violence nears a crescendo, the bare shoulders of du Plessis enter the frame. Apart from a white towel, South Africa's captain is naked.

du Plessis had used the break in play to take a shower. Over the sound of water, a instantly recognisable voice echoed down the stairwell connecting the dressing room and the field. The air was cut by a torrent of expletives.

"I've received enough abuse from David Warner to know what his voice sounds like," du Plessis says, as a wry smile develops around the corner of his mouth. "I turned the shower off and grabbed a towel. I wasn't really thinking about it. When one of my guys is being challenged, I always want to come to the forefront.

"It's quite funny looking back," du Plessis says. "It does look like an alpha move to try pick a fight in my towel. The memes that came from that made me laugh. The best joke I heard was that if there had been a fistfight, the first thing to hit the ground would have been my towel. Some people have asked if I intended to be shirtless but it was pure coincidence."

In Faf country, clothing is optional

In Faf country, clothing is optional © Getty Images

It's a question worth asking, though. "He loves to get his kit off, doesn't he?" says Brendon McCullum, the former New Zealand captain and for a while du Plessis' Chennai Super Kings team-mate. "Every second, whenever there was an opportunity to take his shirt off, he'd do it. And fair enough, if you look like that, why wouldn't you?"

Botes, the school coach, remembers having to threaten du Plessis with punishment if he unrobed during practice. Henderson and his Todmorden team-mates nicknamed him "spray-on": his shirts were so tight they might have been applied from an aerosol can.

"I don't know anyone who pulls off being an alpha male and a metrosexual man at the same time the way he does," says Gary Kirsten, South Africa's coach when du Plessis made his Test debut. He recounts a sincere offer with regard to personal grooming: "Gaz, it's ridiculous you have so much body hair," du Plessis told his coach. "I can wax that off for you if you'd like."

Back in his tenth ODI, the 2011 World Cup quarter-final in Dhaka, du Plessis had walked in at 121 for 4 as his team stumbled in their chase of New Zealand's 221. Hope endured with de Villiers, on 35, climbing through the gears. du Plessis nervously defended his first ball. He bunted the second towards midwicket and the pair set off for a tight single. A clean pick-up, an accurate throw, and de Villiers was run out at the keeper's end. du Plessis' eventual 36 wasn't nearly enough. South Africa were bowled out for 172. Du Plessis was also docked 50% of his match fee for shoving New Zealand's 12th man, Kyle Mills.

"I received death threats after that [match]," remembers du Plessis. "My wife received death threats. We turned on social media and we were blown away. It became very personal. There were some very offensive things said that I won't repeat. It makes you introverted towards people and you put a shield up. All players go through this and it forces us to keep our circles very small. It's why I've worked so hard on creating a safe space within our camp."

du Plessis became South Africa's all-format captain in August 2017, having inherited the reins of the Test side nine months earlier when de Villiers, like Amla before him, had relinquished control. These tenures came after the long reign of Graeme Smith, who took charge in 2003 - before the invention of Facebook or Twitter and before Marcus Trescothick published his groundbreaking autobiography shedding light on the relationship between elite cricket and mental health. The world had changed by the time du Plessis was at the helm. South Africa needed a captain who could reflect it.

du Plessis on his altercation with New Zealand players at the 2011 World Cup:

du Plessis on his altercation with New Zealand players at the 2011 World Cup: "I received death threats after that match" © Getty Images

"I've played with a lot of captains, but Faf is the best listener," says Imran Tahir, who, according to ESPNcricinfo, has represented 54 teams over a 25-year career. "I never felt like he told me what to do. I always felt included in every decision. I know a lot of players felt that way. I came to South Africa with the intention of revolutionising the way people thought about cricket. I wanted to show that South Africa could be more than just fast bowlers and great batsmen. I feel I did that. But I wouldn't have done that without Faf."

Nothing better exemplifies this than the surprise move in which Tahir opened the bowling against England in the 2019 World Cup curtain-raiser. So much of the build-up had focused on the stable of snarling quicks each team possessed. With the world's eyes turned to Kagiso Rabada and Jofra Archer, du Plessis pulled a fast one. With the second delivery of the match, Tahir found Jonny Bairstow's outside edge. Even before de Kock collected behind the stumps, Tahir was celebrating with unhinged delirium. Tahir had opened the bowling in ODIs just twice before then. "He gave me a challenge and I took it on," he says. "I did it with his faith behind me."

Faith is an apt word to use for du Plessis. On his Twitter and Instagram pages - with about 1.8 million followers on each - he describes himself first as a "Jesus follower", and then "Father", "Husband" and "Pro cricketer".

"It's what's kept me grounded," he says. "It's taught me to be patient and to accept that I can't be in control all the time. I think those are two of the most important traits for leadership. It's helped me connect with people of different faiths and cultures and races.

"I think it's fair to say that captaining the Proteas is one of the hardest jobs in world cricket. No other country has to deal with the stuff we have to deal with. You have to acknowledge that people will judge you because of the colour of your skin, no matter what colour that is. I never saw that as a burden, though. I never resented that. I embraced that as a challenge."

Imran Tahir:

Imran Tahir: "I've played with a lot of captains, but Faf is the best listener" © Getty Images

He didn't always get it right. In explaining the decision to leave out the fit-again Temba Bavuma from the 2020 New Year's Test against England, du Plessis inflamed an already volatile discourse by stating, "We don't see colour." Tensions around the racial dynamics of cricket in the country had been mounting since Mark Boucher was appointed head coach shortly before the series over Enoch Nkwe, who had served as interim team director on the preceding tour, to India. Jacques Faul had been appointed as CSA's CEO and Graeme Smith as director of cricket. Soon Jacques Kallis and Paul Harris were hired as coaching consultants. All of them were white, and in the black-and-white world of South African sport, many critics squinted their eyes and saw a sport rolling back the years to a darker period in its history.

"I made a mistake," says du Plessis about his comment. "I meant it in the best possible way. I meant that I saw Temba as a cricketer and that his skin colour didn't matter to me. I called Temba after the public backlash and I realised I needed to challenge my perspective. He knew what I meant but he made me see that what I said was still offensive because of our history.

"That put me on a journey to asking a lot more questions. To listen more. I'm comfortable owning up to my mistakes and vulnerable enough to say I got that wrong. Now when I hear someone say, 'I don't see colour' I tell them, 'That's not the right thing to say.' I've learned from this."

du Plessis proved his willingness to engage on issues beyond the boundary by throwing his weight behind the global Black Lives Matter movement last year. In South Africa two camps had coalesced either side of the debate. On one end some retired white cricketers referred to the movement as a Marxist conspiracy that had no place in sport. Leading the counterargument was a group of black coaches and players who put their name to a statement calling for CSA to tackle deep-seeded racial divisions in the game.

"All lives don't matter UNTIL black lives matter," was the standout line from an Instagram post by du Plessis that got over 106,000 likes. He was not the only active white cricketer in the country positioning himself on the side of social reform, but he was the most high-profile.

du Plessis took a public stand in support of the Black Lives Matter movement

du Plessis took a public stand in support of the Black Lives Matter movement Christiaan Kotze / © AFP/Getty Images

He was silent, however, when South Africa returned to the field after their coronavirus hiatus late last year. Apart from raising their fists ahead of the Boxing Day Test against Sri Lanka, there were no significant gestures by the team. No knees were taken; no shows of solidarity. du Plessis had evidently said all he had to say.

Besides, he was no longer in charge. He had stepped down as Test and T20 captain in February last year, reneging on a promise he made after the 53-run defeat to England at the Wanderers that capped a disappointing Test series. "It would make it worse if I say 'I'm out,'" he said at the time with a tired look on his face, the same one he had worn for much of 2019.

He vindicated the decision to focus solely on his batting by reaching his highest Test score of 199 against Sri Lanka in the Boxing Day Test. But 63 runs in his next five innings gave evidence that his time might be running out. Denied the opportunity to close the book with a fitting finale against Australia - a three-Test series slated for March was cancelled due to Covid concerns - he announced his retirement from Test cricket this February.

"He's been a hell of a competitor and I hope we get to see him play for South Africa again," says McCullum. "We had battles on the field, most notably during the 2011 World Cup, when things got a little heated. But what a gentleman of the game. If New Zealand don't win the next World Cup, I wouldn't mind seeing Faf do it."

First du Plessis has to earn his place in the T20 World Cup, scheduled for October. His form in the IPL suggested he remains one of South Africa's premier batters despite no longer being centrally contracted by CSA.

With the end so close, du Plessis has given some thought to how he will be remembered in the South African pantheon. He is seventh on his country's all-time run-scorer list across formats and is one of just eight South Africans with more than 10,000 international runs. The cold metrics of runs and win percentages will portray du Plessis as a commendable batter and captain. His detractors will point to a Test average of 40 and to the last two dismal years for the team as proof that his powers had waned past the point of an honourable exit. Perhaps there is some truth in that. The numbers do not lie but they do not tell the full story. Assessing the impact of this alpha requires a softer touch.

"It's in leadership that I found my purpose," du Plessis reflects. "I never considered myself a great player but I knew I was a good player. More important than that I hope that I'm known as someone who moved our culture. I hope I made it a healthier place for new people coming in. It's changed. You don't have to be a hard guy who doesn't show weakness. Vulnerability is strength. Our dressing room is now filled with guys who are comfortable sharing their emotions with the group. I'm proud that I helped facilitate that. I hope I proved that you can be tough and gentle at the same time."

Daniel Gallan is a freelance journalist living in London. @danielgallan