Faf du Plessis insists that the furore surrounding AB de Villiers’ proposed return from international retirement has not been a factor in the team’s disjointed display in the World Cup to date, and in fact he believes it could be the sort of issue that draws the squad closer together as they reach the make-or-break moments of their campaign.
As revealed last week by ESPNcricinfo, de Villiers made a last-ditch offer to return to the team on the eve of the World Cup squad announcement in April, despite having walked away from international cricket in May 2018, claiming that he was “tired” and “running out of gas”.
In his absence, South Africa slipped to defeat in each of their first three matches of the tournament, and du Plessis conceded that they would have been hard-pressed to prevent a fourth loss, had West Indies been able to embark on a rain-shortened run-chase in their washed-out encounter in Southampton.
The primary reason given for de Villiers’ omission had been loyalty to the chosen batsmen – few of whom have so far repaid that faith in a campaign in which only three players have reached a half-century. But asked if the reaction to the breaking news had been a distraction or a chance for some honest discussions within the squad, de Villiers claimed the truth lay somewhere in between.
“I think a little bit of both,” he said. “I think to say no, it didn’t, or to say yes, it did, unites us as a team. We do feel like the news came in and went through the team. It didn’t have a huge impact. There was just a discussion on clarity and on making sure everyone knows what’s going on and then it was moving on.
“The team was happy to get on with business,” he added. “But it is stuff like that, generally, that can give you direction in your team and give you purpose to focus on what lies ahead.”
Du Plessis claimed that the offer had been made via a phone-call while both players were taking part in this season’s IPL – du Plessis for Chennai Super Kings and de Villiers for Royal Challengers Bangalore.
“It was just a conversation,” du Plessis said, “a phone call the night before the team got announced. It was just a ‘This is what I’m feeling’.
“I said to him, ‘I think it is too late but I will check in with the coach and the selectors the next morning to get their opinion on it, as the squad was already announced or picked’.
“But that day there was the announcement. When I spoke to the coach and the selectors the next day, they all agreed that it was way, way too late to change the team, or 99.99 percent [too late].”
On the eve of the West Indies game, Kagiso Rabada had spoken of South Africa’s “interesting” build-up to the World Cup, with “a lot happening off the field”. But du Plessis denied that there were any more issues that needed to be addressed, with Lungi Ngidi’s impending return to fitness set to provide them with a settled squad of bowlers for the first time since the early departure of Dale Steyn with a shoulder problem.
“No, there’s nothing else to be cleared out,” said du Plessis. “I do honestly feel as a team we are still very strong, you know. The guys are still enjoying being on tour, enjoying being here. The guys are having fun.
“It is just performance-wise we haven’t put in the performances we need and, generally, I find that when a team starts losing two or three games, it can happen that there’s a few cracks that can appear in a team and the blame game can start.
“And I do honestly believe that we have been very far away from that. That is a strong sign of us as a team, as a culture, and that is one aspect of performance. You get culture and then you get the actual performance on the field.
“So it’s a positive sign that everything seems intact when it comes to that. But now it is just the performance and the skill side of cricket that needs to take over.”
On the subject of Ngidi, who pulled up with a hamstring injury during the defeat by Bangladesh at The Oval, du Plessis said that he could have played against West Indies, but that it was more important to get some overs in his legs before the final five games of the group stages.
“We wanted him to be ready for today purely from the fact it feels every game is a must-win game for us at the moment,” he said. “But we just feel like it is more important for him to just have another three or four days to build up his loads again so he can bowl eight, nine, ten overs.
“And luckily for us today there wasn’t a lot of cricket so we can throw him straight into the next game.”
“It’s about performance,” he added. “You need individuals within your side to stand up and step up and pull the team up. We need individuals to stand up and step up to lift the team’s morale. If you get that going, then other players can feed off their confidence.”