When Gary Kirsten became Proteas coach in 2012 and appointed Russell Domingo as his assistant he was, to a degree, returning the favour for the faith Warriors coach Domingo had shown in letting a recently retired Kirsten to do some consultancy batting work at the Warriors franchise.
“I saw passion, commitment and a lot of skill as a coach,” Kirsten recalls of his visits to the Eastern Cape. He has an impressive, analytical mind and a great work ethic, so it was a no-brainer for me to ask him to be my number two.
Domingo had also enjoyed recent success with the franchise, winning the domestic One-Day International (ODI) and T20 tournaments in the 2009-2010 season. In so many ways, he was the perfect assistant. The “never played first-class, let alone international cricket” elephant which has sat in his room as head coach was regarded as a help rather than a hindrance back then.
Although he reacts with irritation, and his allies with anger, whenever the subject is mentioned, the reason it won’t go away is because many of the national players find it difficult to accept criticism of their efforts in the cauldron of international competition and always will. Of course, they should not. And Domingo should have been more sensitive. But he wasn’t.
Times are changing, however, and it is not just because the batsmen are scoring runs and the bowlers are taking wickets. It is also because Domingo has grown into the role he inherited prematurely and is becoming less intransigent and more flexible. The two most recent additions to his coaching team have also had the greatest influence.
Thrashed in India and then chasteningly beaten at home by England, the Proteas slipped from first to seventh within a year in the Test rankings and appeared to be heading in the same direction in ODI cricket when they were humiliatingly pipped for a place in the final of a Triangular series by the hapless West Indies.
Now with three successive Test series wins, the ranking has climbed back to third, just a single point behind Australia in second place. And Kirsten is not alone in wondering why the voices of criticism have not done a little more praising for the man who was supposedly set for the managerial axe.
“I was disappointed but not surprised at how many people held him accountable for the team’s results during a really difficult time last year,” says Gary Kirsten.
“But not very many of those people are now making him responsible for the results of the last six months, let alone eating humble pie.”
Kirsten happily admits that his working relationship with Domingo sailed through some choppy waters but says that was a good thing.
“We disagreed about certain things when we worked together and he had strong views about some issues but he has obviously achieved a happy working relationship within his team and he should be given the credit for that which he deserves,” Kirsten said.
One area in which Domingo has clearly adapted his own thinking concerns the role of a sports psychologist. Having struggled to work happily with Paddy Upton in the role for two years during Kirsten’s tenure, the two men fell out acrimoniously soon after Domingo took over from Kirsten. According to one squad member, Domingo’s last words to Upton were: “No more Zen shit.”
But he did have the character and wherewithal to consult the players about their need or desire for a “mental coach” and the results were mixed. Some felt strongly that they did, a couple that they didn’t, but the majority were somewhere in the middle, with a strong leaning towards voluntary rather than compulsory work with a sports psychologist.
For some time, Domingo was convinced that his coaching team was complete and possessed the skills to help players with issues like stress, anxiety and mental fatigue. But there were still repeated calls from some players for professional assistance and there were less and less objections.
The appointment of Maurice Aronstam in the middle of last year finally assuaged the majority of the group’s desire to work with a professional and, although it may well be entirely coincidental, results changed dramatically with immediate Test success against New Zealand, comprehensive 5-0 and 2-1 series wins against Australia and a whitewash against Sri Lanka.
Aronstam was a fine cricketer himself, a Northerns leg-spinning all-rounder with a double century and five-wicket hauls on his CV. At the age of just 36 and with a young family, he is perfectly placed (and qualified) to relate and empathise with the playing group.
Domingo was frustrated for nearly six months in his pursuit of a batting coach. Jacques Kallis and Duncan Fletcher were among five men to be offered the job and refuse it. But it was worth the wait when Neil McKenzie accepted the post.
Fears that the immensely popular former Proteas batsman would be too “chummy” with the team have proved baseless and the gravitas provided by a proven Test match performer has been immensely influential. With Charl Langeveldt providing the bowling backbone, Domingo finally has all his boxes ticked – and the results show it.
As head coach of the national team he deserved criticism. Now he deserves praise. There was too much of the former and now not nearly enough of the latter.