/ 10 July 2022

The unwritten story of the Proteas – The side who said they could

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South African cricket’s new dawn started around a campfire. It was June 2021 and all Protea red-and-white ball players were gathered for a clearing of the air prior to the team’s departure for the Caribbean.

Dean Elgar had just taken over the Test captaincy from Quinton de Kock, a temporary replacement for Faf du Plessis, joining his old provincial coach Mark Boucher in the process. Many in the cricket establishment hoped it would be a coming together not only of minds, but of spirits, something Boucher’s partnership with Du Plessis conspicuously lacked.

Both felt the need for what Elgar calls the “setting of new boundaries and parameters”. The team’s Test results had been indifferent – three wins in eight with De Kock and Du Plessis as skippers and Boucher as coach. Continue on that trajectory and their international credibility would plunge further. Time for a reset.

The subjects discussed that cold winter night on the Highveld swung back and forth. The team chatted about the only currency that matters in international sport – winning – something they hadn’t done very much of recently.

They talked about #BlackLivesMatter and batted the tricky notion of racial quotas to and fro. They discussed whether they would take the knee before matches on the Caribbean tour.

More logs were thrown on the fire. Hard truths emerged. The team talked about Covid-19 and how surreal life could be in a bio bubble. Most of all, they talked about getting better, an appropriate discussion for a lekgotla taking place at a hotel called African Pride.

This team didn’t have the scandalous talent of the vintage Proteas side of 10 years ago and they knew that. They had no AB de Villiers or Vernon Philander or Graeme Smith in their midst. But they were playing for their country, they were proud, and they believed that although there was no Hashim Amla, they could get appreciably better.

After the long campfire chat, Elgar and Boucher had one-on-ones with all 21 members of the squad. In keeping with the “boundaries and parameters” theme, each player was told what was expected of him in the Caribbean and where he stood in the pecking order.

There was no pussyfooting about but there was no gratuitous criticism either. Elgar mostly talked and Boucher mostly listened. “It was intense,” says Elgar. “After talking to everyone, Mark and I were just exhausted.”

Elgar says away assignments are always tough because of the alien conditions but the Proteas were graced by good fortune ahead of their two Tests against the West Indies, finding their hosts in their customary dwaal. On day one of the first Test in Gros Islet the home side were bowled out for 97; South Africa responded with 322, thanks to De Kock’s swashbuckling 141 not ou,t and by day three the hosts had been bowled out again. South Africa took the Test by an innings and 63 runs.

South Africa’s fast bowlers – Kagiso Rabada, Anrich Nortje and Lungi Ngidi – shared 18 wickets between them and the South Africans caught sharply. As he had when he started his Test career against Australia in Perth 10 years earlier, Elgar contributed with a duck, the Proteas batting only once. But they were up and running. The win felt reassuring.

The Proteas batted first in the second Test at the same venue (chosen to better manage the respective teams’ Covid-19 bubbles) with Elgar determined to score his first run of the series. He batted for a shade under six hours for a laboured 77 as South Africa scratched 298 all out. The West Indies replied with 149 to which the South Africans responded with 174, leaving the hosts to score 324, batting last to win the Test and square the series. They bumbled their way to 165, Kershav Maharaj, the left-arm spinner, taking five for 36, as the Proteas won by 158 runs.

When the post-match presentations were over and the press conference done, Elgar caught Boucher’s eye across the dressing-room floor. “Mark comes off an intimidating international career,” says Elgar. “All the guys wanted him as coach. We bounce off each other. Sometimes we butt heads but, when we do, we find a way to get over it.”

Boucher’s coaching assistant Enoch Nkwe didn’t make the trip to the Caribbean. Nkwe had played club cricket in The Hague and married a local woman before returning to South Africa to learn his trade as a coach. The marriage was struggling and Nkwe thought it best to stay behind. He watched on television, exchanging WhatsApp messages with Boucher.

Their relationship was complicated because Nkwe had been national coach briefly. But when he brought the side back from a disappointing tour of India in late 2019, the noise about then Cricket South Africa (CSA) chief executive Thabang Moroe reached a crescendo.

The increasingly wayward Moroe was replaced by Jacques Faul and, in the crazy days that followed, Boucher was given the national coaching job, Graeme Smith was appointed director of cricket, and Nkwe – seen as a Moroe appointment – saw his star sink.

As well as watching the cricket, he watched the unfolding Social Justice and Nation-Building (SJN) hearings chaired by ombudsman Dumisa Ntsebeza. He’d felt the casual racism talked about by some and identified with the more overt prejudice experienced by others. He simmered. In August 2021, he handed in his resignation, citing “concerns over the culture and functioning of [the Protea] team environment”.

Nkwe didn’t appear before Ntsebeza but Paul Adams did. Boucher’s former teammate told Ntsebeza when he was a young Protea, he used to have an adapted version of Boney M’s Brown Girl in the Ring sung about him. The words, in part, went “brown shit in the ring” and, although he was uncomfortable with it at the time, he was young and impressionable and reluctant to create a stir.

The humiliation had eaten away at him for years and now, encouraged by his wife and given the opportunity at the SJN, he confessed how hurt he had been. Under further questioning from the legal team present to help Ntsebeza, Adams was asked if Boucher had sung the song, and he replied that, yes, he had.

Boucher’s appointment as national coach, remember, was not universally applauded. Some power-brokers in the South African game felt Nkwe’s demotion was clumsily handled. Speaking to Ntsebeza at the SJN hearings, Faul admitted the “optics” of Smith and Boucher’s appointment were poor.

With Nkwe’s resignation and exit interview (CSA also wrote an internal report) and Adams’s confession at SJN, the CSA board felt there was enough to draw up a charge sheet against the coach. Although Elgar and Boucher had discussed much around the campfire at African Pride, formal charges of racism weren’t on the agenda. They were trying to build a side with the weakest top six since readmission. Now this.

Not being part of the white-ball set-up, Elgar watched from the sidelines when the Proteas just failed to reach the semifinals of the T20 World Cup in Abu Dhabi and Oman last October. He fretted about the CSA board’s insistence that the team take the knee before the match against the West Indies (something De Kock refused to do) but was more concerned about Test cricket during the coming summer. India were scheduled to tour but their players were vacillating. A home summer without Tests against India was unthinkable.

After much to-ing and fro-ing, a truncated schedule was agreed on. Indian skipper Virat Kohli won the toss and chose to bat in the first Test at Centurion, India’s opening stand of 117 between Mayank Agarwal and KL Rahul setting up India’s 327. It was the best partnership of the match. Elgar thought it was the difference between the two sides.

South Africa couldn’t pass 200 in either innings and, suddenly, the match was India’s.

Worse followed the 113-run defeat – out of the blue, De Kock announced his retirement from Test cricket. With a mixed-race stepmother, he didn’t like his racial bona fides being questioned and was annoyed by board insistence that the team take the knee before the Windies game in the T20 World Cup. “We walked into a shit storm,” says Elgar.

“Our first challenge [after the defeat] was to quieten the noise and simmer things down,” he says. “There was a conversation in the dressing room that hit a few nerves. ‘You can’t just meander through a series against a side as good as India,’ was basically what we said. These guys aren’t immortal.”

Playing only his second Test after making his debut at Centurion, Marco Jansen galvanised the hosts at the Wanderers. “The spell he bowled to Jasprit Bumrah [India’s fastest bowler and now their Test captain] lifted our energy,” says Elgar. “Bumrah was embarrassed.”

“Kagiso also found the old ‘KG’ mentality – he was bowling at 140km-plus – we really gave it to them. It was as though we’d found ourselves,” he adds.

South Africa’s bowlers restricted India to 202 and 266 but, because they batted poorly in their first innings (229), they needed to score 240 to win – a tricky ask. As he’d done in the second Test in the Caribbean, Elgar led the way with a commanding 96 not out, scored in just a shade over five hours. With all the other batters contributing, they won the Test by seven wickets – an unthinkable result after the traumas of Centurion.

With the series all-square with one to play, the circus moved to Newlands. Again the Test was bowler-dominated, the only exception to the theme coming from the Indian wizard Rishabh Pant. He scored exactly 100 not out (six fours, four sixes) in the Indian second innings, which meant South Africa needed to reach an awkward fourth-innings 212 to win the match and take the series.

Buoyed by their growing confidence, they reached the target with ease, Keegan Petersen even finding time to cheekily reverse-sweep Ravichandran Ashwin to the backward-point boundary for four during his elegant 82. The winning runs were scored by Temba Bavuma, now a vital cog in the Proteas’ machine, the white ball captain and Boucher ally.

But the victory was darkened by shadow. Having drawn up a charge sheet against Boucher, the board now committed themselves to a disciplinary hearing against a coach a previous CSA board had employed. It was announced that respected advocate Terry Motau would chair the hearing, with Nkwe and Adams expected to avail themselves as CSA witnesses.

Bavuma, meanwhile, was leading the ODI side to a 3-0 series victory over India in the Cape, a signal achievement given the team’s off-field issues. “It was a real challenge to manage the conversations around the dressing room,” says Bavuma with a touch of understatement.

The team’s next assignment was against New Zealand away. The Kiwis had beaten India in a one-off Test to secure the World Test Championship six months previously and had a reputation for squeezing every ounce of talent from limited player stocks.

Unprepared, and perhaps put out by New Zealand’s stringent Covid-19 protocols, the first Test was an unmitigated disaster for the Proteas. Scoring 95 and 111, they lost by an innings and 276 runs. They weren’t suddenly a poor team, however, and, boosted by centuries from newbies Sarel Erwee and Kyle Verreynne, South Africa took the second by 198 runs, Rabada and Jansen bowling magnificently.

They rounded off the Test summer with two hearty home victories over Bangladesh. After nine Tests together, Elgar and Boucher, two grim battlers cut from similar temperamental cloth, had racked up seven victories.

In the second half of the summer there were murmurs that Nkwe and Adams weren’t prepared to buttress CSA’s case against their coach. And so it proved. Only days before the hearing’s first sitting, CSA “unreservedly” withdrew all charges against Boucher because neither Adams nor Nkwe was prepared to be  witnesses. Doing so would have exposed them to cross-examination by Boucher’s lawyers.

Nkwe has gone on to be appointed CSA’s new director of cricket, taking over from Smith. 

The team who said they could, a team of late developers without superstars, departed for England on Friday to write the next chapter in their remarkable journey.