Cape Town – Soon enough, South Africa’s fragile men’s national cricket team will have to get used to a whole new hierarchical structure and vastly different faces as their immediate overseers.
Cricket South Africa on Sunday announced widespread changes, in the wake of the CWC 2019 fiasco, to the Proteas’ coaching/management department – to the extent that head coach Ottis Gibson and all of his immediate support team have been removed.
All of which, to my mind, only doubles the importance of a strong sense of continuity remaining in the cross-formats captaincy position occupied by stalwart middle-order batsman Faf du Plessis.
That it wasn’t immediately forthcoming on Sunday – some sort of stock-market stabiliser amidst tumult, if you like – is extremely unsettling.
Even as a major sense of upheaval engulfs the coaching side of things, Du Plessis remains pretty widely perceived as a bastion of respect and calmness in a dressing room not especially renowned for its widespread, suitably forceful secondary leaders.
For sure, the 35-year-old must be held to at least some personal account for the glaring team failure at the World Cup.
But even in the UK-staged tournament, confirmation that he still commands the massed loyalty of his troops arguably came in the late rally by the Proteas, who beat Sri Lanka and Australia in respective closing fixtures – albeit that those results came with qualification for the knockout phase already a shattered collective dream.
South Africa could, remember, have simply imploded even more spectacularly after their earlier woes; instead the corpse retained a noticeable pulse.
Du Plessis himself confirmed his ongoing value purely as an established player, being South Africa’s top tournament scorer with 387 runs at an average of 64.50 – his eight completed innings included a ton and three half-centuries.
South Africa being in perhaps their worst batting pickle (for depth and proven quality) across both the Test and ODI landscapes since the return from isolation, the resilient right-hander remains a key resource.
Certainly any thoughts of the Proteas playing their three Tests in India (part of the new ICC World Test Championship) during October sans Du Plessis seem quite inconceivable, bearing in mind the lingering nightmares of the 3-0 hammering there last time, in late 2015.
But just how certain is his ongoing tenure now?
For one thing, Du Plessis was a publicly-confirmed devotee of Gibson staying at a post he had really only served for some 22 months: now that scenario has gone out the window, and the skipper may not be too over-the-moon about it.
In addition, acting director of cricket Corrie van Zyl told colleague Lloyd Burnard on Monday that clarity over Du Plessis’s position would be given by whoever is appointed as interim team director.
That new director’s title, Van Zyl explained, would be “a combination of the old team manager and the head coach” and that the person would be “the key guy to drive team performance, team culture and team environment”.
Perhaps I am reading too much into this but, in some ways, those last-named requirements almost sound as if Du Plessis’s own, known contributory qualities in those areas are potentially going to be downgraded … or even abandoned altogether?
It is also quite possible that the captain will be looking on latest, far-reaching strategic developments by the umbrella body with a particularly wary eye.
He is at that advanced stage in a cricketer’s life, after all, where the lure of increased participation in lucrative T20 leagues sprouting up everywhere is almost irresistible.
Du Plessis did say at the World Cup that he would be giving deep off-season thought to his onward career in the ODI arena, especially, where he has amassed a weighty 143 caps and is likely to be too old, by then, to be a realistic candidate for CWC 2023 in India.
So maybe his stepping down from that environment is on the cards, freeing him up for some gigs unrelated to national duties.
But with the Indian Test tour fast looming and four similarly blue-chip clashes at home to England to follow fairly hot on that venture’s heels, Du Plessis (Test average almost 43, just to remind) is still badly needed by the Proteas in a wide-ranging capacity.
He should also have enough gas in the tank for an assault on the next major ICC silverware: the T20 World Cup in Australia later next year. Statistics show quite vividly that he still scores loads of runs at a suitably brisk strike for the Proteas in that format, and is an enduringly good fielder despite the legs inevitably slowing a little.
Du Plessis pulling the plug for South Africa in entirety right now – or having it pulled for him, in a captaincy sense at very least – would be a dangerous, potentially disastrous development.
He is needed more than ever, in as many formats as he is happy to stay loyal to in this deeply volatile, uncertain bridging period.
I hope a renewed, short- to medium-term deal is struck with some haste.
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing