Qantas Tour of South Africa
Du Plessis reveals his advice for Smith
Proteas skipper reflects on ‘Mintgate’ and reveals details of text message sent to Steve Smith in wake of Newlands saga
Invoking his own experience in Australia when he was publicly vilified and labelled a cheat over charges of ball-tampering, South Africa captain Faf du Plessis holds no doubt that Steve Smith will return a stronger, more resilient competitor after serving his 12-month suspension.
In an expansive interview with cricket.com.au, du Plessis also detailed the message he sent to his former captaincy rival in the immediate aftermath of the sandpaper scandal that erupted during the third Test against the Proteas in Cape Town last March.
It is doubtful that anyone has a keener understanding than du Plessis of the circumstances that led to the bans imposed on Smith, David Warner and Cameron Bancroft, nor the impact they might leave upon the trio.
The 34-year-old was watching intently from within South Africa's inner sanctum at Newlands 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 organisations flocking into the capital.
The South Africa skipper did, however, carry an inkling as to the way the incident would be portrayed to the wider world, and how harmful that characterisation might be to Smith given his profile and responsibilities as Australia captain.
As a result, and drawing on his own bitter experiences from 18 months earlier, du Plessis's thoughts immediately turned to his fellow captain's wellbeing.
That's because the combative South African remains demonstrably scarred by the opprobrium he earned after he was filmed using 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.
An act that saw him cited by the ICC for breaching the game's Code of Conduct, fined his full match fee and issued with three demerit points when found guilty of changing the ball's condition.
He was also hounded by fans and media before and during the subsequent Test in Adelaide, where he dug deep into his reserves of mental strength and self-belief to score a defiant, deeply personal century.
While noting the context and fall-out of his misdemeanour were vastly different to the case involving Smith, Warner and Bancroft, du Plessis believes the reputational damage sustained is similar in both cases.
It was a key reason why he felt compelled to offered counsel and encouragement to Smith, who was stripped of eligibility to captain for two years after being found guilty of breaching Cricket Australia's Code of Conduct.
For du Plessis, the most painful element of the controversy that threatened to overshadow South Africa's 2016 Test series win against an opponent with no answers to their dominant seam bowling, was the aspersions cast upon his integrity and sportsmanship.
"I just felt my character was getting smashed the whole week, and that is something that is really important to me … how my family view me, the people who look up to me, how they look at me as a character," du Plessis, a devout Christian, told cricket.com.au.
"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.
"Personally, you go quiet and you go into the background and 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.
"I'm still the captain, I'm still going about things business as usual.
"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'."
On day one of that day-night Test, du Plessis single-handedly defied Australia's bowlers – who were armed with the responsive pink ball, in conditions where no other Proteas' batter passed 40 – for almost four-and-a-half hours to remain unbeaten on 118.
It's that powerful desire to challenge public perceptions and reaffirm the fundamental principles for which he stands that du Plessis believes will be burning deep within Smith as he prepares to return to top-level cricket next year.
And which 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.
"When it happened (in Cape Town), the first thing that I felt I needed to do was to send Steve a message," du Plessis said, in revealing the sentiments he shared.
"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'.
"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 per cent sure that he's now sitting at home, and he's extremely motivated for his comeback, and he can't wait for that."
If there was to be a broader benefit emerging from the episode that has brought almost unprecedented upheaval to Australia cricket, du Plessis sees it in the sharper focus now applied to the on-field practice of changing the ball's condition.
The lack of clarity and vigilance surrounding what practices were and were not permitted in regard to 'ball maintenance' was underscored by the Proteas' initial response to the accusations that emanated from the Hobart Test in 2016.
As du Plessis remembered, at first his team felt the reports of wrongdoing were a form of internet prank given the historic use of sweets to enhance sheen on the surface of the ball.
A view that also explained the South Africans' subsequent media conference where veteran batter Hashim Amla stood in front of squad members in a show of solidarity, and dismissed the case against du Plessis as "a joke".
"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," du Plessis candidly conceded when reflecting on the incident.
"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."
The drama that surrounded du Plessis's case – he challenged the penalty but his appeal was dismissed and the sanctions remained – served to highlight a lack of clarity around permissible means of enhancing the ball's condition.
As du Plessis acknowledged, using sugary saliva was only acted upon if practitioners were careless enough to reveal their secrets.
Events in Cape Town earlier this year intensified the scrutiny on ball tampering, with the ICC announcing last June that penalties for proven offences had been stiffened, with players found guilty to face a maximum suspension of up to six Test matches, or 12 ODIs.
In the wake of the Cape Town incident, the ICC banned Smith for one Test under a section of their code of behaviour that prohibits "all types of conduct of a serious nature that is contrary to the spirit of the game", while Bancroft was found guilty of ball tampering and fined 75 per cent of his match fee.
He was not issued with a suspension, while Warner was not charged by the ICC.
"Now, the rules are clearer," du Plessis said.
"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.
"And 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.
"So maybe at different times of the game, things happen for a reason and then the game gets better in terms of what is allowed and what isn't."