Du Plessis wants to follow McCullum's lead at start of year-long acquaintance
If cricket ever wanted context, it need look no further than the upcoming T20s between South Africa and Australia. Yes, you've read that right. The three-match mini-series which will be played a week before a World T20 in totally different conditions is much more relevant than it seems because it marks the start of a series of interactions between these teams that will run until the end of the year.
For the next week, South Africa and Australia will suss each other out before going their separate ways into a tournament before a potential meeting in the knockouts. Then, many of their players will spend quality time together during the IPL before rivalry resumes in the Caribbean for a triangular ODI series. That is followed by more 50-over cricket in South Africa during September and October before four Tests in Australia in November which makes for an interesting 2016.
By the end of it, South Africa and Australia could either be sick of each other or they may have formed new friendships and Faf du Plessis is aiming for the latter. He hopes the series will be underpinned by mutual respect and not the characteristic niggle that has often existed between these two sides.
"Brendon McCullum is a pioneer in that area. He is a great leader but he plays the game in the right way. Other nations see that and realise you can play the game in that spirit and you don't have to be super aggressive and calling someone names and you can enjoy cricket just as much and the games will still be as competitive," du Plessis said. "He is a great leader, the way he plays the game. That's the same way we try and play our cricket. It's not like we try and be super nice guys but we want to play the game in the right way."
Steven Smith, who was fined alongside Josh Hazlewood in New Zealand for showing dissent, was less forthcoming but echoed that idea. "The relations between the two sides are great. We are always tough competitors against each other and tough rivals," he said, playing down a suggestion that the lingering grudge between Dale Steyn and Michael Clarke may leave a stain on the upcoming series.
The last time Australia were in South Africa, in 2014, Clarke and Steyn were involved in an on-field verbal altercation during Graeme Smith's final Test. Clarke apologised in the immediate aftermath but months later, Steyn revealed he had neither forgiven nor forgotten what transpired. There were no fireworks between Steyn and Clarke when they met later that year and now, with Clarke retired and Steyn concerned with ensuring he does not have to, the flames have been doused.
Still, Steyn will be a figure at the forefront of Australia's minds as they try to combat him on his return after more than two months on the sidelines. Smith hinted the top order will target Steyn even though his own camp have described him as "hungrier than ever" to prove why he is the best in the world.
"No doubt Dale Steyn is a quality bowler and has been for a long time now. It's just about summing up what he brings on the day," Smith said. "T20 cricket is about being positive early and we've got a few players who can go out and get some runs against him. He generally bowls in the first six overs and when you've got two fielders out, you've got to make the most of that. You've got to be nice and positive. That's the way our batters play at the top anyway."
South Africa have also identified the Powerplay as the most important period of their innings, especially in the subcontinent. That is why AB de Villiers has been tasked with opening the batting and that is why he will stay there irrespective of who his partner is. South Africa are giving themselves a choice between Quinton de Kock and Hashim Amla but not the choice of batting one of them at No.3 and will use this series to decide which of them opens with de Villiers at the World T20.
"We're looking to give everyone a go in this series. That means trying all the combinations - Quinny and AB or Hash and AB. Both have done really well, they're both in good form. I don't see it as a problem," du Plessis said, but when asked if one of them could fit in at No. 3, he added. "We've planned for two years for this World Cup so to start changing those plans a week before the World Cup is not for me; I'm not that kind of guy. I've tried to make sure that everyone in the team nails down their roles and repeatedly get chances and chances and chances so they get better in that role."
So Australia can be content that they will be able to apply the "plans we've got for AB" because he will be a permanent fixture at the top, while South Africa will acquaint themselves with an attack they don't know much about.
"It's a great challenge that we don't know all of the bowlers very well," du Plessis said. "But we know they'll be aggressive. They've always been aggressive. I haven't played a game against them when that hasn't been the case."
Aggressive, but nice, because they'll be seeing each other all year.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent