South Africa captain Faf du Plessis has no doubt that Steve Smith will return a stronger, more tough competitor after completing his 12-month suspension. He invoked his own vilification in Australia after he was labeled as a cheat and accused of ball tampering.
In an interview with cricket.com.au, Du Plessis revealed the details of the text message he sent to Smith after the sandpapergate during the third Test against the Proteas in Cape Town last March.
The 34-year-old was watching intently as the controversy played out on-field, and from close range as it continued to rage unabated after Smith was deposed from his leadership position and flew home to Australia.
Proteas' insiders have claimed that, even then, they did not appreciate how serious the scandal had become until they arrived in Johannesburg for the ill-tempered series' final match to find television crews from global news organizations flocking into the capital.
Du Plessis admitted that he remains scarred from what happened during the mintgate, when he was filmed using a sugar-laden saliva (from a sweet visibly resting on his tongue) to rub into the ball during his team's Test victory at Hobart in November 2016.
He was found guilty of breaching ICC Code of Conduct, was fined 100% of his match fees and issued with three demerit points.
He was also hounded by fans and media before and during the subsequent Test in Adelaide, a Test where he had to dig deep into his mental strength to score a brilliant century.
"I just felt my character was getting smashed the whole week, and that is something that is really important to me … how my family views me, the people who look up to me, how they look at me as a character," Du Plessis told cricket.com.au.
He added, "I was being called a cheat, my faith was questioned, all stuff like that. It wasn't the fact that people said, 'you were caught trying to do something with the ball', it was people attacking my character. So through that week (my mindset) was just to try and be strong, be a strong captain for the team, not disappear as a leader because I think that can very easily happen when you're under pressure.”
"I'm still the captain, I'm still going about things business as usual. I think that week it was very important for me as a leader to stand up in the team and show the guys that, whatever is happening for me personally, I'm still the leader in the team. And the outcome that I tried to focus on was to prove a point to people that - yes, obviously when you walk out there you want to score runs all the time – but for me it was a case of 'I want to show people how strong my character is'," Du Plessis continued.
He genuinely feels will render the 29-year-old ex-Australia captain an even more formidable competitor, with a far greater mental strength forged in the furnace of hurt and regret.
Du Plessis spoke about Smith and said, "When it happened (in Cape Town), the first thing that I felt I needed to do was to send Steve a message. Just to tell him 'listen, I have been through something similar like this, it is very tough and your character is going to be tested but stay strong - I know that mentally, you are a very strong guy'. Because he's proven that in his career, 'and at the end of this you'll look back in a few years and see that it's made you into a stronger and better cricketer in your mind'.”
He continues, “Obviously, skill-wise he doesn't need anything more, he's already a machine with the bat – 'but 'just getting through this will make you a lot mentally tougher'. And I'm 100 percent sure that he's now sitting at home, and he's extremely motivated for his comeback, and he can't wait for that."
Talking of his own mintgate, Du Plessis said, "As a player, I was always taught when you're trying to get the ball to swing you've got to put something on the ball. So for me, that was a normal day at the office, I wasn't trying to do something different. The bad thing about it was that my technique was bad - the sweet was out on my tongue, and the camera could see it. Obviously now knowing that you can't be that obvious about it."
Du Plessis said that now things have become better, "Now, the rules are clearer. Now it says you're not allowed to have a substance in your mouth while you're shining the ball, so out of that at least something good came. nd I think you can say the same thing about sandpaper-gate; it's the same thing that's happened and after that we had to go back to the ICC and say 'listen there's a lot of tape and stuff these days on guys fingers, so how can we make sure that this doesn't happen in the future of the game?'. Hence, now, umpires can inspect your hands at any stage and now I think it's a little bit clearer.”
(With cricket.com.au inputs)