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Proteas' triumph of the spirit

Neil Manthorp

Even in the face of defeat, the Proteas are drawing strength from a winning philosophy of shaking off disappointment and avoiding the blame game.

Vernon Philander did not even finish the final over of the match. The moment it became impossible to win the final Test, Graeme Smith shook hands with the umpires and batsmen and led his team from the field. There was plenty of back-slapping and hand-shaking among themselves, too, as they headed for the change room.

Initially it seemed peculiar, even wrong, that there was so little regret among the team, certainly among the senior players, that such an obviously deserved victory had eluded them on the fifth day. The talk had been bold and decisive in pursuit of victory, as had their play, but they were strangely unperturbed about their failure to achieve it.

Dropped catches contributed greatly to New Zealand’s final day escape and third umpire Billy Doctrove’s decision to disallow Alviro Petersen’s catch when Kane Williamson was on seven seemed plainly wrong. At the very least, it illustrated the inconsistencies inherent in the current formatting of television adjudication. There seems very little point in having so much expensive technology if decisions are still going to be made on gut feel.

“The third umpire ruled on a few catches in the series and, where there was doubt, the decision has gone with the word of the fielder. But it didn’t on this occasion,” a phlegmatic Smith said afterwards. Clearly the frustration and disappointment of many at home was not shared by the captain or his players. There is a new, karmic aura surrounding the national team and a new approach to touring. Much of it comes from the coach.

For three years in charge of India, Gary Kirsten and his coaching partner, Paddy Upton, refused to use any speech or observations that could be construed by the players as negative criticism.

They spoke only of the good, positive things players had done, or tried to do, and they celebrated any progress or achievement. Failures or disappointments were never dwelt upon, blame was positively frowned upon and there was never a sense of regret.

It was hard to be certain which came first, this philosophy or MS Dhoni embracing it. For Kirsten and Upton it was geared towards one very specific goal, but for the Indian captain it was more a way of life. Once the goal had been achieved, many of the younger Indian players found themselves directionless, albeit with a World Cup winners’ medal and more cash and adulation than they had before. It largely explains the embarrassing crash the Indian team suffered in the wake of the tournament and the South African duo’s departure.

Their outlook on life and cricket remains largely the same, but with refinements and wider-ranging, longer-lasting goals. So any sentiment that might have suggested what the team had failed to achieve on the final day of what had otherwise been an almost completely successful tour would not have “landed” with the coach.

Pavlovian predictability
Two phrases that were repeated with Pavlovian predictability by the players throughout the tour were “concentrating on our processes” and “not being results-driven”.

Oh really? Not being results-driven? Of course it is misleading—Kirsten measured the tour by the win-loss ratio of 6:1. But for the players in the heat of battle, the finish line must never be contemplated, never mind glimpsed. In more common clichéd parlance, play the game one ball at a time.

So, when Philander says he has “just been concentrating on my processes” during his romp to 51 wickets in seven Tests, he has been thinking of nothing more than the batsman in front of him.

It is hard to believe or imagine, but it is a good philosophy designed to steer athletes away from the distraction of the result or “taking their eye off the ball”.

Few things are more important to Kirsten, the man, than family, and as the coach, the players’ mental health and freshness. It is the reason Allan Donald left the tour before the final Test to spend 10 days of quality time at home before taking up his position as Pune Warriors bowling coach alongside Upton. Kirsten had no time whatsoever for those who suggested that Donald’s absence had a material effect on the team’s inability to bowl New Zealand out on the last day.

“Stupid and ridiculous. Unless AD could have stopped it raining for 120 overs on the first two days then we wouldn’t have had any effect at all. Some people give coaches a helluva lot more credit than we deserve. We can’t score runs and we can’t take wickets, but having Allan fresh and in a strong frame of mind later in the year when we go to England and Australia will be very important,” Kirsten said.

Friday’s bizarrely manufactured and wholly gratuitous T20 against India was the last thing Kirsten was about to start stressing about: “We’ll keep it all a bit light-hearted, I think—if we can stay awake. It’s nothing to get too worked up about.”

There is also, of course, the unavoidable conclusion that that is the last and unfortunate legacy of a discredited regime.

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