Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Virat Kohli's support for me has made life a lot easier: Faf du Plessis

Former South African captain on his memoir, Faf Through Fire, taking over the reins at Royal Challengers Bangalore from the Indian legend, lessons he imbibed by observing MS Dhoni at Chennai Super Kings and how IPL has changed the landscape of cricket

Kunal Purandare
Published: May 17, 2023 10:30:52 AM IST
Updated: May 19, 2023 06:18:25 PM IST

Virat Kohli's support for me has made life a lot easier: Faf du PlessisFormer South African cricket captain Faf du Plessis talks about his equation with ex-RCB skipper Virat Kohli, his stint at the Chennai Super Kings (CSK)—his first IPL team—observing MS Dhoni at the franchise, and his biggest Test as captain; Image Courtesy: Penguin Random House India

Former South African cricket captain Faf du Plessis lays bare the vulnerabilities of a professional cricketer in his recently released memoir and gives more than a glimpse of how things unfolding outside the field can affect a player. Faf Through Fire, published by Penguin Random House India, documents the journey of the 69-Test, 149-one-day internationals veteran, who currently leads the Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) in the Indian Premier League (IPL) and tops the batting charts in the T20 tournament with 702 runs in 13 matches as of May 19.   

Regarded as one of the finest white-ball players, du Plessis emphasises on integrity, values and relationships as he opens up about some defining moments of his career in the book. 

In an interview with Forbes India, he speaks about being at his best under pressure—"I enjoy my cricket most when I play for something or there’s purpose behind my cricket,” he says—his equation with ex-RCB skipper Virat Kohli who is now his opening batting partner, how he overcame jealousy for teammate AB de Villiers, his stint at the Chennai Super Kings (CSK)—his first IPL team—observing MS Dhoni at the franchise, and his biggest Test as captain. Edited excerpts: 

Q. In your book, you write about battling two voices—negative and positive—regularly. How did you condition yourself to be an optimist? 

I think it comes with experience. Cricket is a sport where you have a lot of failures, and you learn how to deal with them. The first step was to understand that you have some great days and bad days, and you have to treat them equally. I felt there was a real growth and improvement in the way that I started to think about the game, and the language that I speak to myself. Over time, I was more aware of trying to force myself to be an optimist, to listen to the positive side. And, also to speak to myself in a way that is uplifting.  

Q. You reveal that you thrive under pressure. When the chips are down, I am at my most lethal, you write. Was it always about proving a point? 

The process around it has got to do with the way I was raised initially. My father’s style of parenting was hard-school. That would have been something that would have helped me. I was prepared for things that were maybe ahead of me in terms of my age. I was always trying to be the guy who wants to prove people wrong. It was evident throughout my career. When the chips were down or when the team was under pressure, I was probably at my best. That comes from a thing inside me of wanting to be someone whom people can trust and depend on in difficult situations. When we were under pressure or I was with my personal game, it just gave me a sense of real focus.  

Q. Your relationship with former South African captain AB de Villiers is beautifully documented. You write about being jealous of him initially, but then he was also your best friend.  

I spoke very honestly about that relationship. All of us go through those emotions as friends, and as people. You might have someone you are great friends with, but there is still a human element in terms of a competitive side. AB and I grew up in the same school, and we were always in a sense competitive—to try and outperform each other. It wasn’t healthy for me because I was jealous of him, his performances. The feeling that it gave me was that I was spending so much energy into something that was absolutely out of my control. I got to a point where I realised it was a waste of time… and that I am better off being a very good friend and supporting him. That put me in a better frame of mind to not bother so much and just support people. I write about how it helped me with my own captaincy. It was a case of making sure you want the best for other people, even sometimes if it might seem like a threat to you. You just give your everything. That makes you feel like you are in a better place. 

Q. In the same vein, you mention how warmly Virat Kohli welcomed you as skipper of RCB. What is your equation with him? 

That was an important transition to have… he’s one of the greatest captains of India and obviously RCB, so the shoes were extremely big to fill. The most important thing for the guy who would take over the reins from Virat at RCB would be his relationship with him. Even when the auction happened, the first message I got was from him—to welcome me. Walking into the RCB setup, the relationship was one of respect. We quickly became very good friends and it’s a relationship I am very grateful for in many ways. The support that he’s given me at RCB has made life a lot easier for me because he is genuine in his support for me. He wants the best for the team, and he cares a lot about the team, and he cares about supporting me as captain.  

Also read: Virat Kohli and the Power of One8

Q. Kohli and MS Dhoni are diametrically opposite personalities. What did you take away from the latter when you played for CSK?  

I speak about it in detail in my book. I am extremely grateful for my time in Chennai because it was at a time when I was really hungry to learn about leadership. In my first season, I basically sat next to Stephen Fleming [former player who is now head coach] and asked him stuff about captaincy. And I just observed MS and the way he was going about things… it was a great lesson for me. MS was different to what I thought great captains would do. He changed and opened my mind to the fact that there is not just one way of doing things—there are multiple ways in different cultures, but it’s important that you do it in a way that is most authentic and real to yourself. It was great to observe the way he trusts himself on the field, tactically, reading the game really well, and obviously being a calm influence on the group at all times. It’s something I pride myself on as a leader—to remain calm, whatever happens, in any scenario. With Virat, it’s the passion around playing cricket… it’s something infectious, the way he plays the game. When you field with him, you feel the passion that he has. These are two different styles, but both good and effective.   

Q. You describe yourself as a compassionate leader with a people-centric approach. 

I have always looked at myself as not necessarily the most talented cricketer. Cricket is not always the easiest game, and you have to figure out a way to get through it. Empathy is one of my strongest attributes as a leader in terms of what people go through in this game.  

Q. What was your biggest test as captain? 

My biggest test as captain was my last year-and-a-half with the national side. A lot of things were happening outside our team, within Cricket South Africa (CSA), and I felt there was a lot on my plate. My personality is one that goes in every area that it feels like it can help improve. I think I outstretched myself too much in those 18 months. I was playing part-time director of cricket, selector, assistant coach, part-time everything. I felt there was so much happening off the field… and one had to protect the team from all the noise outside. I possibly went into a burnout, outstretching myself too much. From a playing point of view, the 2015 World Cup loss would be the toughest… sitting in the dressing room was the most pain or hurt I have experienced in my cricketing career.  

Q. Tell us about the impact of the IPL on world cricket and you. 

The IPL has changed the landscape of cricket dramatically. It’s pioneered the game which is now probably moving a little bit away from international cricket to the strength of T20 leagues around the world. The IPL changed all our games completely. The players have gotten better at playing in these conditions because of what the IPL has done.   

Also read: IPL's taking the game deep despite a tough economy

Q. How was your stint with CSK? 

It was a great opportunity. We made some unbelievable relationships, great friends, a lot of people I care about deeply. It’s a great franchise… I’ve been lucky to have been a part of CSK. They run things pretty well over there.  

Q. What was the lowest point in your career—not being able to play in the 2021 T20 World Cup? 

It was the process that was the low point than not being there at the 2021 World Cup itself. It was a difficult process to go through… the lack of communication around that time. 

Q. Your rocky relationship with CSA is a case of lack of communication. Is communication something that you deliberately focus on as a senior player/captain? 

I won’t describe it as a rocky relationship. I would say the period of communication was a rocky period of communication with the people in charge of making decisions around the World Cup. That was a frustrating period. My relationship with CSA today is still a respectful and good one. Communication is good, and honest communication is even more important. I always tell players exactly where they stand and what they need to do—whether it’s the playing members or non-playing ones. 

Q. You focus on mental wellbeing of a sportsperson and write about the travails during the bio-bubble. What can players do to improve their mental health? 

As players, you don’t hear a lot of it being discussed. The game is getting better for it, but there’s still lots of room for improvement though. It comes from a place of players feeling like they can be honest about how they are feeling. As a captain or a coach, when people speak about how they are feeling, their vulnerability, you can’t see it as a weakness… it should be seen as being honest. You can turn that vulnerability into strength. It’s all about the approach that people have. 

Also read: Sports and mental health: When trophies and fame are lined with silent, dark struggles

Q. You say writing this book was a vital distraction. Any regrets when you look back? 

No, everything that happens to us is an opportunity to grow, get better and learn from. I wouldn’t change anything. Everything happens for a reason. As long as you look at obstacles or challenges as opportunities to grow, you keep moving forward.