Wanted for Proteas: Cool heads, less sarcasm and a batting fillip

Centre stage: Kagiso Rabada.

Centre stage: Kagiso Rabada.

There were many reasons to smile after the fourth Test against England finished at Centurion in a resounding 280-run victory for the Proteas, but some still found reason to grumble. Oddly enough, it wasn’t the supporters, despite watching their team heavily outplayed for much of the preceding three Tests while losing the series with a game to spare.

It was hard to imagine any meaningful consolation materialising before the final Test started, but it was duly supplied by 33-year-old debutant Stephen Cook, Hashim Amla and Quinton de Kock, who all scored centuries, and also by Temba Bavuma and, most famously of all, the surging talent of fast bowler Kagiso Rabada.

Cook’s performance may change the selection landscape in South Africa forever. National selectors have, for two decades, ploughed on with an inherited, ageist obsession with “building for the future”.
Sometimes that process requires bricks that have been around for a while, baked long in the sun and hardened. They usually last longer than those straight from the kiln.

Bavuma’s unbeaten 78 on a treacherous pitch was infinitely better than his century on a flat surface at Newlands, at least in the demands it made on his technique and physical courage if not the strains on his emotions.

Rabada’s rise to an astonishing match-winning haul of 13-144 at Centurion is one of the more rousing stories in South African cricket since the Sydney Test match in 1994. Knowledgeable and smart enough to have “lawyer” and “doctor” on his career ambition list well ahead of “cricketer” while at Johannesburg’s St Stithians College, he has a balance and perspective on the realities of life and sport – and the sociopolitical expectations that come with his rise to prominence.

He even had the good grace to be

properly irritated after the game when asked whether he

felt he had “carried” the rest of the attack. The baby face crumpled briefly into disgust. “No,” he said, “I’m a youngster with a lot to learn. They carried me.”

Talking of disdain, head coach Russell Domingo showed plenty himself when asked about the criticism he had received in the past few months after being thrashed by India, plunging off the number one Test ranking and losing to England.

Domingo said “some of the noise has been unnecessary and unfair”. When asked about the possible appointment of a batting coach, two and a half years after he succeeded Gary Kirsten in the top job, he replied: “The title of my book will be: They Think We’re Stupid.”

He confirmed that “several people” had been approached but had not committed themselves. He suggested that the rigours of touring and time away from family were a deterrent, and then “maybe they prefer to make comments from the commentary box rather than helping”.

It was a crude jibe at former captain Graeme Smith, who agreed to spend a day with the team on New Year’s Day only to have his full-time commitment mistakenly announced by then-captain Amla a few hours later. Nobody had spoken to Smith about it.

The Mail & Guardian has confirmed that at least one other internationally renowned batting coach was approached directly and another indirectly. So Domingo’s frustration is genuine and understandable. The only “stupid” thing he did was not to communicate his efforts while criticism was in the air and the team were being bowled out for 79 and 83.

Coaches and managers who start playing smartarse and resorting to sarcasm are, more often than not, heading towards the end of their reign. It is often a sign that both perspective and humour are beginning to fray.

The relationship between the captain and the coach is always a sign of what is to come and De Villiers was full of his trademark honesty before the Centurion Test began, saying: “Having a few wise heads around the team would benefit all of us.”

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