Du Plessis targets more ODI runs
Faf du Plessis has admitted that his ODI form must improve if he hopes to take over as the ODI captain in the future. Du Plessis already leads South Africa's Twenty20 side, and has been widely tipped to eventually succeed AB de Villiers, who has been burdened with the role of skipper, senior batsman and wicket-keeper. However, du Plessis does not see himself as a suitable candidate just yet.
"My performances need to be better if I want to be considered as ODI captain. In Sri Lanka, I was under pressure to score runs and I knew that," he told ESPNcricinfo.
In the last 12 months, Du Plessis has managed only two half-centuries in the 21 matches he has played - an unbeaten 62 against Netherlands in May, and a 72-ball 57 against New Zealand in January.
His lean patch extended to the shortest format of the game as well, but du Plessis ended the drought with an assured 85 in the last T20 on South Africa's tour of Sri Lanka last month. "It meant a lot for me to score runs in that last T20," he said. "I needed them badly."
His own showings aside, du Plessis achieved something bigger when he became the first captain to take South Africa to a series win in Sri Lanka. After a below-par ODI showing in which they were defeated 4-1, South Africa clinched the three-match T20 series 2-1. A notable difference in the two series was in the leadership. While de Villiers struggled in his decision-making and was often behind the over-rate, du Plessis made crucial bowling and fielding changes, appeared in control most of the time, and admitted that he was enjoying his job.
"I love captaining and adding value in that way," he said. "I like giving the talks that a captain gives and dealing with the high pressure times. I even like taking the flak of making decision myself, like when it comes to bowling changes. The captain needs to make tough decisions and I don't mind making them."
Du Plessis was a captain at school level and occasionally in the domestic set-up. So despite his relatively young age when he was promoted to T20 captain in November last year, he was deemed to have had the required skills to cut it at the top. He had only played four T20s when he was handed the role, but immediately set about trying to establish a style of leadership and earn the confidence of his team.
"If you're honest with players, they respect you," he said. "Everybody knew we were experimenting a bit and we will try a experiment a little more because we need have our best combinations." The World T20 and 2015 World Cup are only six and 18 months away respectively, but South Africa are still toying with new combinations and strategies under the new coach Russell Domingo.
Through the process of settling on a line-up, du Plessis is hopeful that his own ODI showings will get better, if only because he will have some stability to get into a rhythm. Currently, he has been stationed at No.4 in the line-up, between JP Duminy and de Villiers, and Domingo has indicated he will keep those positions, even as Jacques Kallis makes himself available for more ODI cricket.
Du Plessis, for one, can see the benefit of a definite plan. "It's nice to have a more stable role because before I was batting everywhere and now I am able to get used to a role," he said. The only person du Plessis thinks can float is de Villiers who he said "has to bat at the most crucial part of the game," because "he is just the best in every situation."
With de Villiers identified as South Africa's gun player, it would not be too surprising to see him relieved of the extra duty of leading in the near future, although du Plessis would not be drawn on how his long-time friend feels about leadership. "AB and I are different captains and we use each other, when it comes to discussing things. I'd love to captain the ODI side but I know it's not going to happen at the moment," he said. "The captain needs to be the first name on the team sheet, so I have to make sure I am there."
A format du Plessis feels he does not have to worry about his place in is the longest one, which South Africa will resume with two Tests against Pakistan in the UAE in October. After his match-saving hundred in Adelaide against Australia last November, du Plessis thinks he has "done enough," to be a certainty in the starting XI despite JP Duminy, the man who du Plessis replaced, returning to fitness.
Duminy has made a full recovery after rupturing his Achilles' on the tour Down Under, and has been reintroduced into first-class cricket through South Africa A in order to force a Test comeback. He was the top-scorer in last week's unofficial Test against India A and also contributed with three wickets, to show his value as an all-rounder.
Du Plessis expects Duminy to make a comeback, but not at his own expense. "JP has done brilliantly since coming back and having him in the team only makes it stronger," he said. "He would slot right back in."
That implies Dean Elgar, who has played in six Tests since Perth last year, would find himself out in the cold. "But if Graeme (Smith) does not recover in time, Dean can just slot in at the top," du Plessis said. Smith is expected to be fit for the series after a lengthy time out of action with an ankle problem but if there is a setback in his rehabilitation, South Africa may have to turn to Elgar, who is an opener by trade.
There's no doubt that the management will do everything they can to ensure Smith is part of the squad, as South Africa will play the Tests in conditions that have already got the better of England. Although South Africa beat Pakistan 3-0 at home earlier this year, du Plessis expects the going to be much tougher in the Emirates.
"You just have to look at England and how easily they were beaten to know it won't be easy," he said. "Spin will obviously be the biggest challenge and that's what we will be working on."
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent