The 2019 World Cup is an appropriate juncture to genuinely judge Faf du Plessis’ Proteas career as a captain and batsman.
Du Plessis has publicly stated ambition to graduate from good to great – and requires the rigour and demand of this winter’s global showpiece in the United Kingdom to truly test whether intangible worth can translate to material results.
Expectation will eventually insist du Plessis better the ODI records of AB de Villiers, Graeme Smith, Shaun Pollock and Hansie Cronje, but the short- to medium-term requires at least World Cup victory, which all predecessors were unable to achieve.
To do this, like Smith, de Villiers and others, du Plessis will have to deliver important victories necessitated by large sums of runs – and therein lies the dual challenge. Batsmen who become captain are either inhibited or empowered by the elevation. Hashim Amla’s brief stint as ODI captain between August 2014 and July 2015 is an example of the limitations. Amla’s average as captain paled in comparison to a blossoming career aggregate at the time. Du Plessis, though, has been entitled by the promotion – and averages almost a dozen runs more as captain than not.
South Africa have won more than 80 percent of the 30 ODIs in which du Plessis has been captain. Early numbers, indeed, but du Plessis’ record is shaping to beat the 73.7, 66.5, 64.2 and 60.1 enjoyed by Cronje, Pollock, Smith and the de Villiers over 138, 92, 149 and 103 ODIs in charge, respectively.
Du Plessis’ key contributions to the Chennai Super Kings’ 2019 Indian Premier League campaign, too, were reminders of the importance of cool, calm and collection under tremendous pressure. A franchise struggling to negotiate the waning form of Shane Watson needed someone else to deliver on cue. Du Plessis characteristically obliged – and will need to do the same for the Proteas in the United Kingdom, especially if Amla’s struggles and the fragility of the middle order need offsetting.
Du Plessis will have plenty of opportunity to perform well in England. The Proteas currently occupy third position in the International Cricket Council’s rankings for ODI teams. They are flanked by England, India, New Zealand and Australia, who are placed first, second, fourth and fifth, respectively. He averages almost 60 against the Indians and well over 50 against the Aussies in ODI cricket, but less than 28 versus the English. The tournament opener against the Eoin Morgan’s men at The Oval in London, then, is an opportunity for du Plessis to right the wrongs – and make an early statement against the favourites.
South African batsman haven’t really collected any particularly memorable and big innings at World Cups. Even a quiet 70 or 80 against the English would put du Plessis among the the 162 not out struck by de Villiers against the West Indies in Sydney four years ago – or the 143 managed by Herschelle Gibbs versus New Zealand in Johannesburg more than a decade prior. While the size of the innings will be contextualised by the scores of the contest, the significance of succeeding over England as a batsman and captain will underpin all.
“England are the favourites. Everyone is talking about them as the favourites at the moment. I recall James Anderson said a while back that England will have to do something terrible not to win the World Cup. Playing the tournament favourites, in England, in the first game – we have nothing to lose really. If we have a good outcome, that puts pressure on England for the rest of the tournament and we can relax a little bit perhaps,” said Proteas head coach at this week’s pre-World Cup departure media conference.
While talk of ‘having nothing to lose’ against England and ‘perhaps relaxing a little bit’ if victorious doesn’t really inspire confidence, Gibson ultimately needs du Plessis and the rest of the squad to walk the talk, regardless of the result at The Oval. Failing that, new and old fans alike might have to weather similar disappointment encountered during seven other premature World Cup exits.