Review: Archie Henderson
Faf Through Fire, by Faf du Plessis with Marco Botha (Flyleaf)
In sports biographies there are broadly two categories: the narcissistic and the cathartic. Many of the former are about footballers, notably Wayne Rooney, whose first biography appeared when he was only 20, precocious certainly but still too young to tell a good story. Faf du Plessis’s autobiography firmly belongs to the latter.
Faf is one of the finest players to emerge from the South African cricket’s assembly line: wealthy schools (both public and private) that are able to devote money and energy to providing academic and sporting excellence. Faf’s years at Afrikaans Boys High in Pretoria were vintage ones, producing four future international players including South Africa’s best batsman, AB de Villiers.
For a while Faf operated in the shadow of his friend AB, but a perceptive observer once advised me to “also watch that Du Plessis kid” when both were still schoolboys and when AB was already an obvious talent. Faf ended his international cricket career with a Test average of 40.02 from 69 matches. For those who are not in the know it’s an impressive number. Interestingly, it is a fact he does not mention once in this book.
So much for the stats. Faf’s book is more about life than cricket, although there is enough cricket in it to satisfy those aficionados.
To start with, Faf is one tough guy. When it came to batting against fearsome fast bowlers or facing up to some toughs in a bar fight, Faf never shirked; it was not in his nature. That mentality prepared him for cricket at the highest levels: Tests, one-dayers or Twenty20s. He thrived in all formats. He also turned out to be an excellent leader, captaining from the front as well as the back. He’d learnt, from bitter experience, to nurture new talent and also to encourage the old.
What comes across powerfully in this autobiography is Faf’s devotion to his family (despite being a cheating lover in his youth), his teammates and to the cricket establishment. As for the latter, it turned out in the end to be unrequited.
At first he got on well with team coaches, team management and even that establishment. Once Faf reached an age where he needed to carefully manage his playing schedule in what had become a demanding all-year-round sport with many mistresses (the Indian Premier League the most attractive in a burgeoning world of T20 tournaments), relationships with the establishment became rocky.
Thabang Moroe, a discredited CEO of Cricket South Africa, was not up to the task; Graeme Smith, a lauded former captain under whom Faf had played, turned out to be a dismissive director of cricket; Mark Boucher, the last Proteas coach he played under, was just uncaring. Phone calls and emails to the last two were often unanswered.
Even in a tough-guy, masculine environment, Faf is clear: everyone needs some love. He didn’t get it from Boucher or Smith, but he did get it in the IPL where New Zealander Stephen Fleming, like Smith one of the best captains in Test cricket history, lent him an ear and where Virat Kohli, a cricket idol in India, became a friend and confidant.
It’s a book that should have had a happy ending, but doesn’t because of the shoddy treatment from Cricket SA, Smith, Boucher and many unnamed officials in what remains a dysfunctional organisation. Those whom Faf names may have their side of the story, but we are unlikely to ever hear them.
One objective observer is Neil Manthorp, part of the South African cricket literati. Manthorp, who is close to Smith, wrote in a recent column: “I have often been asked about New Zealand’s consistent ‘over-performance’ at ICC [International Cricket Council] events. In a country with fewer cricketers to call upon than an average Indian town, how do they get the best out of their cricketers year after year? The answer, I believe, lies in trust and inclusivity. Both are in short supply in South African cricket – and have been for a very long time.”