Faf du Plessis captain of South Africa speaks to the media end of the day 4 of the 3rd Test match between India and South Africa at JSCA International Stadium Complex on October 22 2019. Picture: Isuru Sameera Peris/Gallo Images
Faf du Plessis captain of South Africa speaks to the media end of the day 4 of the 3rd Test match between India and South Africa at JSCA International Stadium Complex on October 22 2019. Picture: Isuru Sameera Peris/Gallo Images

What happens when good captains’ cricket teams do badly? Faf du Plessis is finding out.

SA have won only half of the 26 completed matches‚ regardless of format‚ that they have played under Du Plessis’s leadership in 2019. That’s well under his career winning percentage with the national team: 63.89%.

So far this is Du Plessis’s worst year at the helm since 2014‚ when he captained SA to three wins and three losses.

He will have a chance to tilt the balance into positive territory in his team’s next match‚ which is also their last game of the year: the Boxing Day Test against England in Centurion.

That is if Du Plessis is still in charge in nine weeks’ time. Before the Test series in India that was not in doubt. Now‚ in the wake of SA’s worst performance in a rubber since 1936 — hammered 3-0‚ twice by an innings — it is. They failed in all departments‚ and the buck stops with Du Plessis.

“It does feel like a lot of responsibility lies on my shoulders; to try and make the runs‚ to try and build the team‚” Du Plessis said in Ranchi. “But that’s the time and place that I am right now. It’s unfortunate that someone has to do it and that it falls on my shoulders‚ so that’s OK.”

Du Plessis first led SA in a T20 against New Zealand at Kingsmead in Durban in December 2012‚ and 108 games into his tenure he has presided over 69 wins and 35 losses.

That is an impressive record‚ but the first step on the path to the sorry place SA find themselves in now was taken in the months before Du Plessis took the reins.

In July 2012 — weeks ahead of SA becoming the No 1-ranked Test team — Mark Boucher played his last game‚ thanks to a tumbling bail that took out his left eye.

Since then Jacques Kallis‚ Graeme Smith‚ AB de Villiers‚ Hashim Amla and Dale Steyn have also retired. And those are only the cream of a bumper crop of quality cricketers who‚ for various reasons‚ are no longer available.

That means SA constantly have to find ways to stay ahead of their ever-shifting reality‚ and it seems they are fresh out of ideas. All they know is change is coming‚ ready or not.

“Graeme Smith was a successful captain for a very long time and then after that it was like: ‘What now? Who is going to captain the side? What’s going to happen?‚” Du Plessis said.

“This period is to try and make that process a little bit smoother‚ identifying the next leaders‚ identifying the next captains‚ working with them‚ and then when that time is right‚ that time will be right.

“For the time being‚ it’s just about the process unfolding.”

Did that mean he was still the person for the job?

“It’s a very young leadership group‚ so for right now‚ yes.”

Besides‚ if not him‚ who? It is not as if a ready replacement has presented himself.

“It’s a rebuilding phase‚” Du Plessis said. “The way forward when you go through real tough times like this is to start identifying candidates that will drive the team forward.

“You look for personnel that’s within the team we see in three‚ four‚ five‚ six years to come. Then the process starts.

“It’s tough to start right at the beginning. Obviously‚ in a perfect world you will start somewhere in the middle — change one or two players and in a period that’s a little bit shorter.

“But the position we find ourselves in now‚ with a lot of experience out of the Test team‚ [means] that process will probably take a little longer. Right now it’s about identifying the person that you believe will drive this team forward.”

Does SA need another Du Plessis? Or another Smith? Or someone to take them in a different direction?

Those issues are not easily settled‚ but Du Plessis’s reference to Smith is pertinent. The latter spent a significant amount of his time on air as a television commentator during the India series criticising Du Plessis’s decisions and approach.

Turns out Du Plessis is the more successful captain‚ both overall and in two of the three formats. T20‚ in which Smith won exactly two-thirds of the time and Du Plessis has a mark of 63.51%‚ is the exception. Would you believe it?

Does that make Du Plessis a better captain than Smith?

Better question: who is next?

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