Faf better than AB, but no third option
Minutes after South Africa lost the fifth ODI to Sri Lanka, national selector Shafiek Abrahams said that in his view, Faf du Plessis' leadership skills were superior to AB de VIlliers'. Abrahams was on a post-match television show casting a critical eye on the team's performances but his co-analysts missed the opportunity to ask him what the administration's concerns with the current captaincy were and if or how they planned to act on it. Given his position in the set-up, he may have had an answer.
Abrahams was part of the panel that appointed de Villiers ODI and Twenty20 captain in June 2011, when Gary Kirsten took over the coaching reigns. He was also part of the panel that relieved de Villiers of the T20 duty in December 2012 and transferred the armband to Faf du Plessis. Now it seems the doubts that decision hinted at may have deepened.
That the ODI team de Villiers captains lost 4-1 to Sri Lanka while the T20 team du Plessis leads won 2-1 is not the point. The two units are at different stages of their development and the captains alone are not to blame for the outcomes. Both men struggled for fluency and form with the bat until the last match of the respective series but they differed in how they approached their leadership roles.
De Villiers' series began with a strategic conundrum. South Africa chose to field two specialist spinners, both left-armers, in the first two matches. Against a line-up laden with right-hand batsmen and with some of the best players of spin in the world, it was asking for trouble. That de Villiers struggled to manage them was hardly a surprise.
But he also struggled to manage in general. There was an instance in the second match when he wanted Robin Peterson, who opened the bowling, to make way for Chris Morris, who wasn't aware he was being called on. Morris had not warmed up and was obviously surprised. It was only a small indication of non-communication but it was still notable.
His habit of introducing a part-timer to bowl at times of uncertainty is proving too much of a gamble - it has worked on isolated occasions, including once for Farhaan Behardien this series, but it is not a consistently sound tactic. It also shows de Villiers' own uncertainty, a trait he has been captain for too long to still have.
Du Plessis' confidence in his own ability is more obvious. He uses his bowlers with assurance, even if it means making what could be seen as a harsh call. When David Wiese bowled an expensive first over on debut in the first T20, he was immediately taken off as South Africa looked to limit Sri Lanka. When du Plessis saw Lonwabo Tsotsobe having success in his opening spell in the second T20, he bowled him out. He also used legspinner Imran Tahir to good effect.
For many, the difference between the two is not a surprise. Du Plessis captained the schools team de Villiers was part of. He also captained the amateur Northerns side. De Villiers did not captain at any level before international, probably in part because he made his international debut so young.
De Villiers was 20 when he first played for South Africa. He was a youngster who had to toe the line. At the same time, du Plessis was developing leadership at lower levels, be it club cricket at Lancashire or at the Titans franchise. That does not mean du Plessis should take over from de Villiers in ODIs but it should tell South Africa some of what they need to do in future: groom a captain.
When de Villiers was appointed, South African cricket needed a change. The 2011 World Cup had left severe scarring and the duo of de Villiers and Hashim Amla - who has since stepped down as vice-captain - were thought to bring a fresh start.
De Villiers' schoolboy charm, enthusiasm and talent were thought to be the ingredients of a strong leader. Amla was another expected choice. He had captained at Under-19 level and at his franchise, Dolphins, but became averse to leadership there in a season where his batting suffered because of it.
He accepted the role in the senior side because he thought he was more ready for it but when he realised he wasn't, after standing in for de Villiers on occasion, he stepped down. By then, du Plessis had had a mature start to his Test career and was considered ready for a more important role. Apart from him, there is little other choice.
A quick scan of the captains at franchise level reveals a lack of candidates. Either the teams are captained by players who have had their run for South Africa and are unlikely to get another chance - Justin Ontong at Cobras and Johan van der Wath at Knights - or those who are not yet established in their international careers like Henry Davids at Titans and Ingram at Warriors.
Dolphins have recently recruited a new captain who is actually an old player. Morne van Wyk will lead them while Lions use one of Alviro Petersen, Thami Tsolekile or Stephen Cook, none of whom can be considered a young leader. Ontong also captains the A side which leaves little room for developing a leader there.
Perhaps as a result, South Africans are rarely sought after as captains in overseas competitions. None of them were put in charge of an IPL team, where Australians are often used, and only Andrew Hall and Neil McKenzie captain on the county circuit.
One theory about South Africa not developing captains has to do with the stature of their current Test leader Graeme Smith, who has been in the job for a decade. For nine of those years he also captained the one-day team. Of the current players, only Jacques Kallis has played international cricket longer.
Smith was appointed young, at 22, because South Africa needed an emergency replacement. Hansie Cronje had also been a strong leader and with his sudden fall from grace, they simply had to find someone to fill the gap. Shaun Pollock was one of the best cricketers in the side and one of the most reliable and level-headed but he lacked the type of aggression that comes with leadership.
"After the 2003 World Cup, when Shaun had to go, we decided on Graeme because we saw in him the qualities of a leader," said Hugh Page, who was on the committee that appointed Smith. Smith started shakily, confusing being brash with being bold but he had to assert himself somehow and had a long rope with which to so.
"We knew we would get a lot of years out of him," Page said. They were right. And because of the certainty Smith brought over the last ten years, South Africa have not had to concern themselves with where to find their next leader.
Captains are not easy to find. Not only do they have to be able to inspire, instruct and inform, they also have to take care of intricacies like over-rates and the use of technology. Page believes South Africa need to start looking for someone who "has good people skills and is unflappable on and off the field." He said a good captain is someone who can "command respect through his performances and behaviour" and who is also able to have empathy and "understand the personal circumstances of his team-mates."
For one person, especially an inexperienced one, to be all of these things is asking for a baby to walk before it can crawl, which is why Page emphasised that whoever is South Africa captain - even if it remains the two limited-overs incumbents - he needs "strong support." Because they are leading young teams, it will be up to the likes of Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel, Tsotsobe and Peterson, who have all been around for a long time, to prop up the leader.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent