South African captains have long come to accept that like any nice suit, the World Cup and pressure come together as a two-piece set. But even by that crazy standard, Faf du Plessis has had to endure a campaign far removed from any of those his predecessors led.
The Proteas, who last lost four ODIs in a row in 2008, were in danger of matching that feat inside the first 10 days of this tournament under du Plessis. Add to that injuries to two fast bowlers, news leak of his best friend offering to come out of retirement in the 11th hour before squad selection, the persistent rainfall cancelling practice sessions – du Plessis could be forgiven for believing that the all the dark clouds of the UK were hovering only above him out of some vendetta.
Sixteen months ago, in the press conference room at Durban, Du Plessis had unveiled “Mission 2019” – a holistic project to get South Africa World Cup ready. De Villiers was in that vision, as were a bunch of young batsmen who would be battle-hardened before the big event. The local journalists were also informally sensitized against the morale-sapping usage of the ‘c’ word in their questions. Du Plessis was going to be in charge for the first time at a World Cup and he wanted to ensure anyone even remotely associated with his team was pulling in the same direction.
And yet, as things stand, here are South Africa, at the proverbial point of no-return in a World Cup, at least two weeks ahead of schedule. “Yeah, that’s fair,” du Plessis acknowledged when asked if the opening week of the tournament had taken to a place he’d never been as a leader. “And I think naturally with everyone when you speak to the team before coming to a World Cup, you are preparing them for the fact that World Cups, as much as you try to make it just another game of cricket, unfortunately there is a little bit more expectation. There is a little bit more on you as the player. And the same thing is for a captain or a coach.
“So definitely the start that we’ve had has made that really, really challenging. But I suppose that’s what the last two, three years of captaining this side has prepared me for. It’s a hard time, but it’s also a time that I’m really owning up to the fact that I need to step up and make sure that I lead the team in a time when they need me”
As the leader, du Plessis is not doling out the hope medicine through pep talks in team meetings. Instead he has held personal, one-to-one conversations with every squad member to try and drill a sense of purpose into the team for the remainder of the tournament. The five-day gap before their game against Afghanistan after the first-week blitz and the UK weather have made this exercise easier than anticipated.
“Honestly it’s just been checking in with every guy individually, see where he or she is, and then just making sure that I make it clear to them that there needs to be a purpose in what’s coming up. You can’t just hope for things to change. Hope’s a very dangerous thing for me; you have to make it happen, you need to get yourself out of that space as quick as possible,” du Plessis said.
“In an ideal world, yes, you’d like more practice. But also a one-off net session is not going to make the team play better suddenly. I believe it’s more the conversations we’re having behind, making sure we’re strong and knowing exactly what we need to do. The kind of cricket that we need to play, the intensity that we need to play. I felt in that first week our intensity and the way we played was down. And that’s not good enough. And that’s why our results weren’t the way we wanted.”
Du Plessis has made no efforts to hide the fact that the team has its backs against the wall but hasn’t given up on the World Cup dream as yet, even if it’s a tone starkly different to the one he was humming 16 months ago in Durban.
“It’s super clear for us. Now everyone has written the team off. So there’s our backs against the wall as a team. We can’t be looking back now. If you’re looking back, then we’re just going to almost like float through this tournament, win maybe one, maybe two, three games, but we’re not going to achieve what we want.
“So hopefully that will allow the guys to come out and play the way we want them to play and the way we can play. And I believe if we truly do that, we’ll be a dangerous team.”