JOHANNESBURG – Faf du Plessis became the Proteas Test captain almost by accident, but right now you couldn’t imagine a better captain on the international scene.
When Du Plessis was handed the captaincy in 2016, it was supposed to be temporary. AB de Villiers was injured and Du Plessis led the side to a 1-0 win against New Zealand in a mini-series that helped restore confidence and pride after the struggles the summer before when the Proteas lost badly in India and were beaten at home by England.
De Villiers had still not recovered by the time the side headed for Australia later that year, and Du Plessis won South Africa’s third series there in a row, even as the Australians dragged him through the mud over a mint.
Du Plessis took over the reins officially after that tour as De Villiers took a break and he has established himself firmly as the team’s captain. He did struggle in England last year, when, besides Morne Morkel, the bowlers, whether suspended or unfit, were unable to produce with the requisite consistency.
It remains the only blemish on Du Plessis’ captaincy record, which features seven series wins out of the eight in which he’s led the side.
There is no doubt the side rally around him. He may not be the imposing figure Graeme Smith was but he speaks with similar authority and as the Wanderers Test showed, is just as tough.
That second innings century was painful. Already carrying a sore finger (which he fractured during an ODI against India in February), Du Plessis was then struck on the damaged digit twice, the second drawing blood. He strapped it up, took a pain killer, and hit an eighth Test century.
“It (shows) the character of a champion, of a leader,” said Proteas coach Ottis Gibson.
It was an innings Du Plessis said afterwards had made him feel like he’d contributed to the team’s success, but his teammates knew he’d already done his part in the role of captain to help achieve the historic series win against the Australians.
“His leadership, his character, speaks volumes for him as a person,” Gibson added.
Any successful captain needs a set of good bowlers, and in that regard Du Plessis has been extremely fortunate. To take 80 Australian wickets as the South African attack did in the series was a remarkable effort with all four of the frontline bowlers taking a “five-for” at some point in the series.
Du Plessis also knows how to handle them all, as was clear from the delayed declaration on day four at the Wanderers, to allow a tired and injured attack some time to recuperate. It worked too, as South Africa won with two and a half sessions to spare.
“He is a great leader because he’s got time for everyone,” said Kagiso Rabada, who finished the four-match series as the leading wicket-taker with 23.
"He has good emotional intelligence; that’s very important as a captain. He understands every player, he can have a conversation with anyone. When you understand people, that’s when you know what gets them going. He’s a very fair guy, and very honest, and not biasedly honest, he’s logically honest. All these results are not a coincidence.”
There is still more that needs to be built into his legacy as Proteas captain - a limited overs trophy would be significant - but being the first SA captain in 48 years to achieve success against Australia on home soil is a notable achievement.
Morne Morkel may have said his goodbyes but Du Plessis hinted that he was still highly motivated to continue playing for and captaining his country.
That is more good news for the side, for in Du Plessis the Proteas have an excellent skipper who may very well go down as one of the greats.