Proteas bat away old habits

Proteas coach Gary Kirsten, with Test captain Graeme Smith, is changing the way the team prepares. (Hagen Hopkins, Getty Images)

Proteas coach Gary Kirsten, with Test captain Graeme Smith, is changing the way the team prepares. (Hagen Hopkins, Getty Images)

South Africa’s stunning defeat to Zimbabwe on Wednesday was as cold as the midwinter temperatures – and the Proteas’ performance so far has been as weak as the rays of sun that provide light but little warmth at this time of year. None of this will, or should, worry the management, supporters or players.

The bowling and fielding against Bangladesh on Tuesday were tatty. Five catches were dropped and there was a miserable succession of wides, no-balls and long-hops in the final eight overs, in which Bangladesh scored more than 100 runs.
Fortunately, led by captain Hashim Amla’s unbeaten 88 from 53 balls, there were enough runs in the bank for the Proteas to win comfortably.

Against Zimbabwe, however, the bowling was again poor and the batting faltered under the pressure of scoring at least nine runs to the over once Amla and the impressive Richard Levi had been dismissed.

It would be a mistake simply to look at the Proteas’ shortcomings without paying due credit to the performance of the hosts. Amla, of course, did not make that mistake. “They were very impressive – they outplayed us and deserved to win. Zim have always played their cricket with passion and that showed again. We lacked a bit of intensity, but we’ll get there,” he said.

There was never a lack of purpose about this tournament for the South Africans. The management team spoke to every player in the squad about their hopes and expectations in both the short and medium term in one of many strategic changes to the way tours are conducted under Gary Kirsten’s stewardship.

Pecking order
If the old-style pecking order among players continues to exist, it will be fuelled by respect, not fear or intimidation. New players are not “tolerated” by seniors; they are encouraged to contribute in every respect, from training routines to discussion groups. Senior players, too, are made aware that a significant part of their responsibility lies in talking to new players and sharing their experience.

Jacques Kallis, who is being rested from this tournament with Dale Steyn, Morné Morkel and regular skipper AB de Villiers, tells many a tale of his first few years in the national team as a teenager when the traditional “don’t speak unless you’re spoken to” mantra existed.

“I was a boy in a roomful of men. They had seen a lot more of the world than me. They had to pay their dues as youngsters and they expected me to do the same. It seemed perfectly normal to me,” Kallis said.

The only problem with the “old-school” system of respect was that it didn’t just preclude youngsters from contributing; it discouraged them from asking.
“They [the older players] had to learn their lessons for themselves and they expected the next generation to do the same,” Kallis said. “I didn’t question that. I just kept my head down and got on with it.”

Kirsten went through exactly the same process a little earlier than Kallis, except that he did question it – although mostly privately. Now that he has the opportunity to change things publicly, he is grasping it with both hands.

Old habits die hard
How many young parents have vowed not to raise their children as they themselves were raised? And how many find themselves at 40 declaring: “I’m sounding just like my mother/father!”
The same applies in a professional sense to many sports coaches and chief executives. There are good reasons for the birth of clichés such as “old habits die hard”.    

One reason why old habits die hard is the “told you so” criticism that is directed at the pioneers of new habits when they fail. Old-schoolers, for instance, may have a field day with Kirsten’s new methods now that they have lost an unofficial T20 match against Zimbabwe. But the coach will not change his views and will live or die by them. He does, after all, have something no other South African has: a World Cup winner’s medal.

“I resented team warm-up sessions on the morning of a match. After a couple of years I knew exactly how I needed to prepare before a game  and what worked for me, but I had to go through 45 minutes of prescribed routines before I could even start that process. It was silly,” Kirsten said.

“We used to leave the hotel two hours before the start of play and there was so much down time, hanging around. For the majority of people, that’s negative time. As Sachin [Tendulkar] used to say, if you’re trying to prepare for a game on the morning it starts, it’s too late. Your preparation has to be done in the days and weeks before the game. All you are doing on the day of the game is relaxing your body and ­tuning your mind into what lies ahead.”

Game time
There is nothing like “game time” to get players physically and mentally ready for a season and, accordingly, Kirsten tried, below the radar, to organise five practise matches against Zimbabwe. He had no idea that his plan would be “hijacked” and turned into a televised triangular tournament with Bangladesh.

“Maybe I was naive, but this was never my intention. Having said that, it’s no bad thing. It increases the match intensity and makes a defeat like Wednesday’s hurt even more. It also increases the learning experience.”

Fellow coach Paddy Upton has used the pre-tour camp and the considerable “down time” in Zimbabwe to expand on the ethos of “human being first, cricketer second” – and the results are plain to see. These are real people who are keen, not just prepared, to meet, greet and integrate with those around them. The belief is that real people with perspective and balance are more likely to succeed than those for whom winning and losing is everything.

Winning and losing is certainly not everything for Kirsten and Upton in Zimbabwe, but it is for the players. And it is a fairly safe bet that they will focus on exactly that in the final on Sunday.

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