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Faf du Plessis: 'I opened up myself completely. I'm saying I'm weak, or I did things wrong and I learned from that'

The former South Africa captain talks about why he chose to get into the uncomfortable parts of his career in his newly released autobiography

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
Faf du Plessis did not want to write a book about cricket. He wanted to tell stories about relationships, using sport as the page and his time as a professional player as the ink.
His autobiography, Through Fire , was released this week, and, given its genre, you'd expect it to be personal, but there's a different intensity about this narrative. Written through parts of lockdown, it borders on invasive as du Plessis mines through his past to reveal parts of him that most others in his place would rather keep secret. He writes about being an insensitive partner, a jealous friend and an insecure adult, and presents sides of himself that many of us - familiar only with the image-conscious man who might chiefly care about the picture on the front cover - may not have come across before.
Ernest Hemingway wrote that there was nothing more to writing than to "sit down at a typewriter and bleed". Du Plessis feels that's what he did with his book.
"I opened myself up completely," he tells ESPNcricinfo on the eve of the book's launch, which he is "nervous but excited" about. "And this book was not about saying I am right. I'm not saying I'm right. In fact, I'm saying the opposite. I'm saying I'm weak, or I did things wrong and I learned from that."
Most of the book is a chronological retelling of his career but not through scorecards or match reports. He tells his tale and is willing to own the consequences.
"The purpose of the book is that every story that I write in it has some sort of impact on the relationships in my life. Most importantly, the through line, right through the book is leadership. So even sometimes when a story seems like it's about someone, it's actually not really about someone; it's how I experienced it in my perspective."
Tell that to the many recognisable names in the book, the many leaders (by title or not) that du Plessis understands could feel "offended or attacked" by some of the things he wrote.
"I thought I understood what it meant like captaining a diverse team but obviously I didn't. If you're intentional about improving as a leader, then you'll pick up on those small things that you're not getting right"
Mark Boucher is the most obvious candidate and ESPNcricinfo understands he is less than thrilled with revelations in the book of the breakdown in their relationship that led to du Plessis' Test retirement.
Du Plessis insists he can separate Boucher as a coach to Boucher as his coach at a particular time in his career. "I speak about what a good cricket coach he is and I think he was the right guy to be appointed as coach back then. I still believe to this day, from where I'm sitting now and not playing for the Proteas, that he's the right guy for the job because he's a fantastic cricket coach.
"From a leadership point of view, I thought we were a little different. People think that the relationship between myself and Bouch is a bad relationship, but it's not. I just explained the things that I struggled with as a person. I struggled to connect with him in the way a captain should do with a coach and then also struggled to do so as a player."
Graeme Smith is another leader du Plessis shines the light on, forensically detailing messages he'd sent to Smith, then South Africa's director of cricket, as they tried to thrash out a plan that would keep du Plessis playing T20 cricket after his Test retirement. According to du Plessis, Smith often didn't reply quickly enough, which led him to seek opportunities in T20 leagues, meaning he was unavailable for South African fixtures that he needed to play to be considered for national selection.
Du Plessis says he could feel himself being frozen out despite his best efforts to stay in the system. "I tried my everything to make sure that I could get there but then it just felt like everything was just working like this," he says, gesturing with his hands moving in opposite directions. "I could feel it slipping away from my fingers."
At the time, du Plessis was resentful but he has since moved on and maintains Smith was one of his biggest teachers. "I mentioned Graeme probably more than anyone in terms of how good he was as a captain and what I learned from him."
Cricket South Africa is another party that could feel aggrieved by how it comes across in the book after du Plessis critiqued the board's lack of soft skills and pointed out the times it had let the players down - and there were many.
The 2015 World Cup semi-final was marred by selection interference, which affected du Plessis deeply. "That was a hard experience. I talked about the emotion I went through in that World Cup: feeling like it's there for us to get and then you lose, and it feels like your heart gets ripped out of your chest.
"It's the hurt of the World Cup, but then it's also just this one thing. Why did that happen? Why was that something that we as a team had to get sidetracked by, from having 100% focus on the game? We were still focused, but it was 10% less, and in international cricket that 10% is a huge difference."
In the book, du Plessis speculates that the damage done by the administrators that day could have led to Kyle Abbott choosing a Kolpak deal and to some decisions then-captain AB de Villiers made later in his career when his availability for the national team became sporadic.
De Villiers was always going to be a major part of the du Plessis story. Their friendship started as school boys, blossomed as young internationals, and then suffered when their paths diverged. Du Plessis was among those who decided against accepting the already retired de Villiers' 11th-hour request to play the 2019 World Cup.
"The whole journey with AB is such a big story and such a cool story. We grew up together, as mates and competitors. And then it's about moving through it, maturing and becoming his biggest fan. There's a lot of value that people take from that story because a lot of people would experience similar things.
"I will always be disappointed that we didn't get to play more towards the end because he was still so hot in terms of his batting. The whole process of not having him around towards the end was tough as a captain because he's such an incredible cricketer. But also as a friend, I enjoyed having him there with me. Those were our best times - we were playing for South Africa together as two kids that had a dream of playing for South Africa together. It was a really hard thing for me to go through, more so as a friend than as a captain."
"I said, 'we don't see colour' because that's my perspective as a white guy. In South Africa, you mean well when you say that, but it offends other people. I didn't get that initially. I thought I did the right thing and I said the right thing"
But de Villiers is not the only high-profile sportsperson with whom du Plessis forged a friendship. JP Duminy was one of his bible study partners, and he has often been spotted hanging out with Siya Kolisi, the first black captain of South Africa's national rugby team. South Africa is a country where friendships across the racial divide, especially among well-known people (scan through the Instagram accounts of some popular South Africans if you'd like some proof) remain rare. Race history was a subject in which du Plessis had his biggest learning.
The most difficult challenge of du Plessis' time as South Africa's captain came at the start of 2020 when Temba Bavuma, the current white-ball captain and the only black African batter in the team, was dropped from the Test side. Du Plessis, who was also out of form then, was asked why he and other white batters had survived the chop when Bavuma hadn't. He dead-batted the racial question with the line, "We don't see colour," which sparked a storm that hung over him all summer.
"In my eyes, I protected Temba that day," he says. "I said, 'we don't see colour' because that's my perspective as a white guy. In South Africa, you mean well when you say that, but it offends other people. I didn't get that initially. I thought I did the right thing and I said the right thing."
Du Plessis contacted Bavuma to try to understand the implications of his statement and later realised he had much more work to do on the topic.
"I realised this is obviously something that I don't get. I need to listen and let other people speak and explain exactly what's going on. In order for me to represent South Africa and captain the South African cricket team, this is something I need to do better. I thought I understood what it meant like captaining a diverse team but obviously I didn't and that's the beautiful thing about growing and self-growth - if you're intentional about improving as a leader, then you'll pick up on those small things that you're not getting right."
Not everyone involved in South African cricket went through the same reflective process and the issue did not die down. When the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement resurged after the custodial killing of George Floyd at the hands of a policeman in the United States, it was expected that in cricket, the South African national team would be at the forefront of the solidarity movement. But while several other teams were kneeling on the field as a gesture to stand against racism, South Africa did not present a united stance.
By then, du Plessis was gone, but he understood what his former team-mates - especially those from white backgrounds - were grappling with. They faced pressure from their communities not to show support for BLM without also discussing issues like farm murders even as the majority of South Africans, people of colour, wanted to see the team show solidarity with their struggles.
"It was really tough because I knew it was going to be like walking over burning coals," du Plessis says. "I was like, but this is the right thing to do in the terms of the Proteas. The Proteas need this. You won't be able to please everyone."
Still, du Plessis had sympathy for all sides and especially for the team at last year's T20 World Cup, where they received a board directive to take a knee or else... (Quinton de Kock chose not to and withdrew himself from the match against West Indies.) "It was something different - people have to understand that it's an impossible situation to put cricket players in."
Du Plessis had himself hoped to play the back-to-back 2021 and 2022 T20 World Cups, but poor communication and rigid policies (CSA currently only issues all-format contracts, for example) meant he had to put that dream aside and instead move on to T20 leagues. He holds no bitterness, he says. "I'm the biggest Protea fan. I'm a supporter, just like anyone else."
But could he be more than that? A consultant in future? A coach? Du Plessis is not thinking that far. "I'm still planning to play cricket for the next two years or so. I'm a very purpose-driven person. If I feel purpose, I feel really connected to things. Now I feel like I've got purpose with the different leagues around the world. And I'm excited to see what lies ahead."

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent