You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become a villain - Harvey Dent’s line in The Dark Knight was more of an ode to an age-old truth than a film dialogue itself. It is one of conviction and steadfastness, a battle between a never-say-die attitude and knowing when to end.
When Faf du Plessis came to the field for England’s second innings in Johannesburg, the venue for many memorable South African wins, there was a sense of calmness surrounding him. He was, of course, under fire for the team losing eight of their nine Test matches, and the buck might have already stopped with him as far as his future as South African captaincy was concerned, but he seemed a little less detached. Maybe he was just wandering or maybe he wanted to leave everything aside and announce that whole damn thing that half the world wanted him to say.
“Damn it, enough is enough and I will find my way like I did in 2007. After all, at times like these, nothing is better,” he would have uttered the words in a parallel world before catching the UK flight. But hey, no, we are not talking about any normal human being. He is Faf du Plessis, one of South African cricket’s biggest heroes and an ambassador par excellence. He knows better.
"I felt that the team needed a leader to stand up and try and guide the ship through a difficult time. If you leave the team when they need you most, that's not my style. I have been under pressure a lot of times as a player and I've come through those times. In tough circumstances, I've played my best innings under pressure. I think that speaks for itself that I can't leave the team when they need me most, as one of the leaders in the team. I can't do it forever and it has been chipping away at my character. For now, that's what we need. I think it will make it worse if I say I'm out," were Faf’s exact words when questions were posed to him in the press conference about his captaincy future, just in the aftermath of Quinton de Kock replacing him as the ODI skipper.
For the record and even though I hate to repeat, Faf du Plessis has looked bereft of ideas in the entire series against England or in the preceding India series for that matter. He kept on going around circles by not removing Keshav Maharaj from the attack in the second innings in Centurion even after he was being thrashed all over the ground. And when he delayed taking the new ball in England's second innings in Cape Town, he earned himself more than a few haters. Amidst all these, one thing that remained constant though - a matter of fact actually - that he has not been as bad as things were going in South Africa’s favour.
Of course, he had a terrible India series but then who had it better? He was the third-most successful South African batsman in that gig and only Quinton de Kock scored more runs in the entirety of 2019. As far as that forgettable World Cup goes, du Plessis was still South Africa’s leading run-scorer, with an envious average. All these were indicators that he never gave up and the team’s fortunes were probably the byproduct of something worse brewing in the South African cricket scene. And we all know the elephant in the room, don’t we?
As we go deep into the conversation to label the leaders with recency bias - and Faf has done enough wrong to take the brickbats - a rudimentary truth gets established that we would probably never want to hear. It is one of honesty, integrity and moreover, sailing the boat to the shore than riding the disturbing wave.
Move over, stakeholders. For us, the cricket fans, who have nothing but the deep desire of watching incredible sporting deeds on a daily basis, it hurts and hurts really watching the tragic fall of a hero who once commanded the attention of another level. Faf might not have the charisma of AB de Villiers nor the swag value of Graeme Smith but he has stood tall to sail South African cricket in the most difficult of circumstances, when the talents stopped coming through franchise and provincial tournaments, or when players took the Kolpak path to money. He was the last man standing in a South African generation of classy, composed and elegant batsmen in the post-Jacques Kallis era, all with pride and dignity.
Glories might have stopped coming his way but the crest was high enough to make him one of the greats of the game. When the Mintgate controversy reached a crescendo, he had captained the side to an away series win against Australia. He led the side to victories against India and Australia at home and when things turned messy in his own dressing room and under Cameron Bancroft’s pants, he was classy as ever to stand as the man for all occasions. Let me tell you, South Africa just had a captain who retired when the team needed him the most and one who just couldn’t sustain the rigours. Faf never did any of those but carried on because that was the best thing for the team.
Sitting on the other side of the fence, it is easy to claim that one is not really interested. But before making any early proclamations of intent, take a step back, wait for the storm to pass and think again. And you will see that there will be a man standing at cover, chewing some gum, hapless, bruised and battered. He will take the questions and like his mate at Chennai Super Kings, will go back and hang up his boot. Then only we’ll probably realise the magnificent personality of Francois du Plessis and accord him with the respect he deserves.