Proteas have a gap for a front man
Successful sports teams don’t always have a front man, but many do. Whether an inspirational leader on the field or the name on which millions of dollars of merchandise are sold, there is usually a “face” by which the best teams are recognised.
But, at least one, Real Madrid, of course, have attempted to assemble an entire squad of “galacticae” for years.
South Africa’s Proteas have had a number of their own down the years, from Allan Donald and his war paint to Lance Klusener, Shaun Pollock, Jacques Kallis, Graeme Smith and Mark Boucher.
They fulfilled the role with varying degrees of enjoyment and reluctance but it was part of the job.
Hashim Amla’s visage makes him instantly recognisable and is the antithesis of the tough, uncompromising image portrayed by South African teams since Clive Rice and Kepler Wessels led them in the immediate post-isolation years. That may be a good thing. It’s hard to live up to a reputation when it’s not a natural fit.
Boucher was called the “Bulldog” by his teammates and it’s no great coincidence that Dean Elgar shares the same nickname in the dressing room. There’s the obvious, strong, squat stance – short torso, wide shoulders – but there’s also the fearless eyes and willingness to accept confrontation, even seek it.
Elgar is confident and believes in his own ability, and has done so for many years when others doubted it. The line between confidence and arrogance becomes finer with every year that sport becomes more professional and the ambitious left-hander has been accused of crossing the line.
The Australians, almost certainly recognising plenty of themselves in him, gave him a torrid, verbal time each time he came to the crease last year, suggesting that he was a “Figjam” (Fuck I’m good, just ask me) and offering praise as caustic as it was sarcastic. Elgar knew, of course, that they wouldn’t have bothered if he wasn’t worth it.
When he was first selected, he made no secret of his desire to bat at the top of the order and didn’t bother with the usual “I’ll bat anywhere for the team” platitudes. He heaped pressure on himself in the knowledge that he was most likely to respond to his own expectations. When Smith retired, he grabbed at the opening berth while it was still warm.
His last competitive match before the first Test against Sri Lanka in Galle was in April and his preparation for the series consisted of “two months off, a couple of nets against the South African ‘A’ bowlers and three days of intensive preparation here in Sri Lanka”. If it was less than ideal, it didn’t show – a second Test century more than demonstrated what he knew he was capable of.
Like Boucher, he is also reluctant to concede the slightest disadvantage, never mind defeat. Having rashly chased a wide delivery soon after reaching three figures to precipitate the loss of a potentially dominant position, Elgar would go only as far as “yes and no” when asked whether 195-1 and 268-5 represented a loss of advantage. It was.
Sri Lanka’s batsmen, with the great duo of Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara to the fore, are unlikely to squander their opportunities on a pitch traditionally full of runs for the first two or three days. A total in excess of 400 would appear to be essential and, even then, Dale Steyn will need to find his finest reverse-swing form to give the tourists an advantage.
Whatever happens on the field, however, it is heartening to witness the atmosphere among the squad behind the scenes. Head coach Russell Domingo has taken some arrows to the body regarding his lack of international experience and his erudite assistant, Adrian Birrell, has maintained a deliberate “below the radar” approach, despite 20-plus years of coaching, including a successful international spell with Ireland.
Allan Donald has the highest profile of the coaching staff but he, too, prefers the players to be in the spotlight.
Claude Henderson is another man with a stellar playing record who has somehow escaped his playing days without a trace of ego. The spinning coach is all about the ball and the field, not the image or anything else.
Conventional viewers may miss the “name brands”, and there were a few high-profile sceptics suggesting that Domingo was far too much of “no name” brand to succeed. They may still be right. But it’s not the coach who creates successful teams, it is the players. Vain, proud, selfish and selfless – even vainglorious – they all contribute to a successful team.
Amla may be the most selfless player in his squad but that only means he needs players to take up the slack in other areas.
When the nastiness starts, as it always does and always will in Test cricket, he needs a front man. Boucher did it for over a decade, not always happily but never with complaint. Perhaps Elgar will be his successor, a willing and worthy one.