Du Plessis writes that he often cheated on his girlfriends, a pattern that only changed in his late twenties ©Getty
What would Viv Richards do? Or Kepler Wessels, Javed Miandad or Ian Botham? Imran Khan? Allan Border? Kapil Dev? Curtly Ambrose, Ian Chappell, Ravi Shastri or Douglas Jardine? Probably not what Tim Paine, Faf du Plessis and Wasim Akram have done in the past month.
They have revealed that they are not tough guys. At least not in the way cricket has always expected players – particularly captains – to be: hard bastards who wouldn’t know sensitivity if it smacked them upside the head. People like Richards, Wessels, Miandad, Botham, Imran, Border, Kapil, Ambrose, Chappell, Shastri and Jardine; a Tough XI for the ages.
What happens when two of them collide? In a bar near the MCG in 1977 Botham took violent exception to Chappell’s withering views on English cricket. The matter was taken outside, where only the sight of a police car queled furiously flying fists. Botham was 21. Chappell, 13 years older, was a giant of the era. So the altercation could be seen as the impetuousness of youth meeting the ego of experience. But at Adelaide Oval 33 years later, when Botham was 55 and Chappell 67, they again had to be physically restrained from attacking each other.
Maybe the clocks of grandfathers tick like time bombs. Maybe toxic masculinity never gets old. Or lui never grows up: in 1994 Botham published an autobiography subtitled “Don’t Tell Kath”, a reference to Kathryn, his wife. The back cover promised “an intriguing cocktail of sex and drugs attachments, personal upheavals, confrontations with his peers, and remarkable achievements both on and off the field”. Seven years later Botham was forced to tell Kath about his affair with a woman in Sydney, but only because messy details had emerged in the press.
Maybe they don’t make them like that anymore, as suggested in books released between October 25 and November 11 by Paine (The Price Paid: a story of life, cricket, and lessons learned; with Peter Lalor), Du Plessis (Faf: Through Fire; with Marco Botha) and Wasim (Sultan: A Memoir; with Gideon Haigh). Or maybe they still make them like that, but they look at themselves through the prism of their determination to be better people.
Paine writes about the “shame” and “despair” that descended in the wake of the exposure, in November 2021, of his sexting a woman who was not his partner: “Your wife is leaving you, your name is mud, you hate yourself and you hate what you have done and you hate the thoughts tormenting your every waking moment.The kids are looking at you with no idea what’s going on, and you can’t sleep, you can’t eat, you can’t function, you can’t go outside or answer the phone or look yourself in the eye.”
Wasim writes of living the high life as a player, which led to drug use: “The culture of fame in south Asia is all consuming, seductive and corrupting. You can go to 10 parties a night, and some do. And it took its toll on me.My devices turned into vices.
“Worst of all, I developed a dependence on cocaine. It started innocuously enough when I was offered a line at a party in England; my use grew steadily more serious, to the point that I felt I needed it to function.
“It made me volatile. It made me deceptive. Huma [his first wife], I know, was often lonely in this time … she would talk of her desire to move to Karachi, to be nearer her parents and siblings. I was reluctant. Why? Partly because I liked going to Karachi on my own, pretending it was work when it was actually about partying, often for days at a time.” Nothing less than Huma’s death, of a rare infection, in October 2009 made him stop using cocaine, Wasim says.
Akram writes of living the high life as a player, which led to drug use while Paine writes about the “shame” and “despair” following the sexting scandal ©Getty
Du Plessis writes that he “often cheated on my girlfriends, a pattern that only changed in my late twenties. My understanding of what a relationship should be was flawed. While I knew it was wrong to be involved with so many girls at the same time , I never felt guilty about it.” The wronged women included the one he married in November 2013: “While Imari and I were still dating, I was unfaithful to her a couple of times and I got caught out of her.”
Du Plessis also touches on what might be called coldhearted selfishness: “Imari dealt with depression in her mid-twenties and, when she needed me most, I was emotionally absent … I was unresponsive to her suffering and cries for help.”
The book is shot through with a level of introspection that would make the Tough XI cringe. All that touchy-feely consideration and empathy is not for them. Its 381 pages include 16 mentions of vulnerability, 20 of feelings, 21 of sensitivity – only three of them in connection with physical injury – and 61 of emotion, emotions, emotional or emotionally.
“My approach is very honest and vulnerable, to make people feel like they can be themselves and trust me,” Du Plessis told Cricbuzz. “The only way I could have written this book is if I was true to that person. I have to point the finger at myself first. That’s just the right way of doing it. Never do I throw stones if I’m not hard on myself already.
“To be honest and open yourself in every way is not easy. You bring up things you’ve almost forgotten about. My wife would read the book and cry, and say, ‘I didn’t know all this about you.’ As a professional sportsman you learn to deal with things on your own.
“I’ve always seen vulnerability as a big strength. Other people see it as a weakness. But if I can be vulnerable, especially in leadership, people would feel it’s OK to be vulnerable. If you don’t show it, people are scared to be themselves, and then they play the role of someone they can’t always feel like.”
For those who see the likes of the Tough XI as inviolate heroes, this is dangerous talk: players play, thinkers think, and let’s not confuse the two. But there is no question that the unhealthy imbalance between the differing demands that cricket makes on teams compared to individuals, which manifests most starkly in the harmfully fake settings created away from the support structures of home, makes the game among the most emotionally challenging of all competitive sports. But that doesn’t mean players, even at elite level, are equipped for the challenge. Did that mean being part of high level sport, particularly cricket, was mentally damaging?
“Unfortunately my generation, and lots of generations before me, never felt like that was an area of importance,” Du Plessis said. “You always have batting, bowling and high performance coaches, but they should be there for players who need help with [mental health]. You are away from your loved ones for long periods of time in a high pressure environment, and you are expected to just deal with it.
“We see that as mental toughness – either a guy is mentally tough or mentally weak. You almost think, ‘Just harden up. This is what it’s supposed to be like at the top. It’s not made for softies.’ That’s not the truth.That aspect is changing, and it’s great that people are coming out more often and saying how hard it is to deal with the pressures of international sport.
“I talk about it in the book as soft skills versus hard skills; being aware that you need to focus just as much on the soft skills as you do on training harder, and being fitter and stronger. We need to show just as much care towards the softer side.”
“I’ve always seen vulnerability as a big strength” – Faf du Plessis ©Getty
Much of Du Plessis’ book is devoted to exactly that, but it landed with a thud ahead of its publication when articles based on redacted extracts appeared in the media. A bruising first encounter with Daryll Cullinan and a difficult relationship with Mark Boucher were laid bare in ways that are uncommon in South Africa – where books on sport don’t often rise above hagiography.
“The hard part about the first week was that the book wasn’t released yet,” Du Plessis said. “It wasn’t supposed to come out at that time, so that created a stir. People couldn’t read the book and see the context, and me explaining everything. Now that it’s out there, I’m very happy that people can read it.”
Did he get why he had caused upset? “Some of the headlines were quite direct. If I read that about myself I would also feel put out. There were people who weren’t happy, but my answer to them was that if they read the book they would hopefully see my heart in it and understand. There’s a lot of good as well about the people I write about. Once you take one line and just read that, it’s very easy to understand something out of context. People felt like it was an attack on them but it wasn’t ‘t. It’s purely my story and my perspective on how I experienced things.”
Telling that story gave Du Plessis a glimpse into the world of the game’s writers: “Playing cricket is a lot easier. I’ve got respect for you guys, even more than I had before. I enjoyed the process but it was a lot harder work than I thought it would be. I started in lockdown and the plan was, ‘Let me throw myself at this completely, and I can see where it takes me; if I feel there’s something of value I can get across.’ I got obsessed by putting all my attention into it. I’d be writing until two in the morning; just writing, writing, writing …
“Initially we were thinking of releasing it last year this time, but it was so much work. I was playing cricket and then I’d be sitting until late at night going through the book. Then it was voice notes and calls and interviews with the writer. It was an insane amount of time. I didn’t expect that. It was a lot more difficult than I thought.”
Du Plessis worked from notebooks he had filled during his almost nine years as an international, in which he played 262 games for South Africa – 115 of them as captain. “I’m not great at remembering a lot of stuff, so when I’ve thought about something I put it down on paper. When you’re talking to the team you’re always making notes. If there was something around culture that I enjoyed, for instance, I would write it down.
“To my surprise I didn’t throw the diaries away. I started going through them and found them super interesting. I didn’t have this kind of stuff available to me as a young cricketer. Maybe, if I shared everything I learned, I could help people.”
Whatever you do, don’t call the product of all that effort a book on cricket: “If I was going to do this book it was never going to be about cricket. I find that boring. I needed a different way of doing it Leadership, culture and relationships were the big things I felt like I could speak about. Cricket is what I do, so there were cricket stories about those things that pulled it together. But I was always aware of not going too much into the cricket side of things but more into what I find a lot more interesting.”
Even Botham and Chappell aren’t all about cricket. And not all about themselves. Botham raised more than GBP 30-million for charity, several of them connected to cancer research, on 18 marathon walks in various countries between 1985 and 2017. Chappell was so enraged by troops being deployed to stop a ship carrying 438 refugees, most of them Afghans fleeing the Taliban, from entering Australian waters in August 2001 that he visited the asylum seekers after they had been herded into a detention center in South Australia. The experience inspired him to become a special representative for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Cricketers are, like all of us, complex. Unlike most of us, some of their most prominent complexities, good, bad and somewhere in between, are on display for all to see. Maybe the most important difference between the Tough XI and Paine, Du Plessis and Wasim is that they are willing to compare their failures and, if needs be, change.