South Africa in Australia 2016-17 November 2, 2016

Captain calling: du Plessis turns to Graeme Smith


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Moonda: Morkel will be missed, du Plessis holds the key

None of the calls Faf du Plessis will have to make in the next month will be as important as the one he makes this evening. The one to Graeme Smith.

"I'm supposed to speak to Graeme a bit later, just to try to get some ideas of how he did things when he was over here because he was a very successful captain. I'm looking forward to that conversation."

If anyone knows how to win in Australia, it is Smith. He is the only South African captain to take a team to victory in Australia, and he did it twice. Smith's success seemed to stem from the bat, not even a broken arm getting in the way of it, but the real secret to what he achieved in Australia was in the mind.

Under Smith, South Africa were no longer intimidated by an opposition that had long dominated them. They believed they could be better and they were. So much so that they even scared themselves.

"For a year or so, we were trying to play in the shadow of the team that was there," du Plessis admitted.

The shock of Smith's retirement in 2014, and the proximity of it to Kallis' retirement three months before, meant that South Africa lost significant experience in a short space of time. Although their newly-appointed captain AB de Villiers had played a decade of international cricket, he did not have any background in leadership. South Africa struggled for direction and it was only after de Villiers grew into the job and then passed it to du Plessis - albeit only temporarily - that they started to find themselves.

They have created a new identity, with their "own goals of what we want to achieve," and now that they are sure of what those are, they are ready to go back and seek assistance.

"The most important thing for me as a leader is to put your ego aside and try and ask and learn as much as you can because there's a lot of valuable information out there," du Plessis said.

To that end, du Plessis has also been in touch with the regular captain and his childhood friend, de Villiers, who he says is "enjoying life in South Africa but missing us." If de Villiers had given du Plessis any tips, he didn't share them with the media, but they are likely to be particularly valuable in Perth where de Villiers raced to 169 off 184 balls the last time he was here, helping South Africa build a match-winning total.

The lessons of de Villiers' innings will also come from Smith, who knows that without players who can provide momentum in the way de Villiers and Hashim Amla did in 2012, and Duminy did in 2008, he may never have won. Similarly, without Dale Steyn, Smith would not had the firepower to fight Australia and he will remind du Plessis of the importance of managing the spearhead so he remains as sharp as possible.

One of du Plessis' most important tasks will be the management of Dale Steyn's aggression © Getty Images

Smith usually waited until Steyn was fired up and ready to explode, before asking him to put on a show. If Steyn got angrier or more aggressive during the performance, Smith would not interfere. He left Steyn to own the stage and inevitably, Steyn responded.

Du Plessis will probably do the same thing but he also wants Steyn to school the rest of the attack, something he has already started doing.

"He has really stepped up in terms of working with the young guys and in team meetings and discussions, he has led vey well," du Plessis said. "Hopefully he can stay strong right through the series. We need him. Hopefully he can bowl at good intensity and for long periods of time."

Smith may have tips on how to keep Steyn's workloads from aggravating the shoulder problem that caused him to miss most of last summer, and about when to use him in ways he can work up both speed and swing. But the biggest tip Smith will pass on to du Plessis is that none of the above will be possible unless the team has good guidance and a strong example to follow. That example has to be du Plessis, a particularly tough ask for a young leader.

When Smith first won in Australia he had already been captain for five years. Du Plessis has not even done it for five Tests. Still, he sees himself as being thrust into the role at the best time.

"I am older, more mature and understand myself better as a leader. I have got the balance better. I understand what it takes to be a better leader," he said.

He also has the advantage of knowing what it is like to single-handedly shoulder responsibility, as he did in Adelaide and, like everyone else in his squad, he does not have any memory of losing in Australia.

"I haven't been on the other side. I assume that it helps," du Plessis said. "Confidence plays a huge role in cricket. When you come up against good teams like Australia, you need everything. My first thought walking into Perth was of winning four years ago. You'd rather have good memories than bad memories."

And when he calls Smith, there will only be talk of the good ones.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Graemethewarrior on November 3, 2016, 1:41 GMT

    @zm29 n both are absolutely right..he indeed was a warrior nd "the dark knight"..

  • dunger.bob on November 2, 2016, 23:10 GMT

    The confidence coming out of the SA camp is so palpable you could cut it with a knife. I don't mind that actually because I know it can be a two edged sword. The more confident a team is the harder it is to shake them up, that's true. On the other hand though, when a super confident side does get rattled it usually means a total and spectacular collapse of all that self belief. Supreme confidence is a great ally but also a terrible enemy.

  • Beertjie on November 2, 2016, 20:59 GMT

    The loss of AB will be decisive. I'm pick Aus to take it 2-1. Cook, Bavuma + Duminy are weak-links for SA, while Aus bowling is underdone (Starc) and missing someone like Pattinson/Cummins. Some waning players on both sides, but still capable of busting a gut (Siddle at Adelaide ('12), Steyn at Perth ('16)?). Btw I've always been a fan of Faf and couldn't understand how he couldn't make it earlier in test cricket.

  • cricfan37129293 on November 2, 2016, 20:53 GMT

    Maybe Smith could tell him to show some humility, a quality sadly lacking amongst the Saffers down the years......

  • DaveOTasmania on November 2, 2016, 20:47 GMT

    ABD grew into the role? He's only captained once hasn't he? It was Amla who took over as captain and didn't grow into the role at all, and ABD didn't hand over the reigns to Faf, he got injured.

  • Crictragic1 on November 2, 2016, 20:42 GMT

    Aaah! My favourite cricketers and rainbow warriors - play with both your hearts and minds, you shall prevail. All the best!

  • JohannK on November 2, 2016, 18:39 GMT

    SA has a better chance of winning with Faf as captain. I would go as far as to say that could trump the presence of AB, because managing bowlers and being tactically astute cuts the total runs of the opposition in a manner that means your own team needs fewer, perhaps even far fewer runs to win.

    So when AB is fit, I would argue he should hand over the captaincy if Faf is successful in Aus, which I think he will be.

  • I_MVarun on November 2, 2016, 16:08 GMT

    woha...!! GC Smith, wat a man..great player and captain leads SA to new height. Still remember his batting performance against England (277, 85 1st Test, Birmingham) (259, 2nd Test, Lord's). Faf does have the talent..dats for sure. However, GC Smith have (Gibbs,Kirsten, Kallis (Batsman) & Pollock, Ntini), Faf too have decent bowling and batting options. Still, majors faults are associated with todays' SA's test team. Hope, they can resolve them perfectly and starts rising as a best team in the world.. Common SA..

  • GrindAR on November 2, 2016, 15:34 GMT

    Admit.... Graeme Smith, the best Captain/Skipper the game had in modern test cricket arena. He was the best at managing his players and inserting them at right timings to get the best. In the games perspective, nobody did what he managed to do with CSA and his team on and off the field for betterment of CSA team as a whole. I would think as if, Hansie Cronje entered inside Smith. Nobody can be as balanced, cool headed and yet produce unthinkable turn arounds as he did. He for sure, is inspiration for atleast handful of captains around the world.

  • diri on November 2, 2016, 14:40 GMT

    @ ZM29 ... You are 100% correct. Smith was a warrior . He made up for talent by playing with his heart. The will to fight to the end. I still remember how he protected his team mates and took all the criticism from media and fans only because he knew he could handle it.Note he was made captain at 22!!!!He might not have been the most technically astute captain but he always lead from the front and understood how to motivate his team and get them to perform. It was Smith who transformed SA from the bridesmaids into the kings of the worlds. Under Smith SA were a juggernaut. Its a pity he retired so early. One of the most important figures in SA cricket history. His second innings knocks were amazing.

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