If South Africa avoid defeat during the fifth and final Test against England at the Oval, and win their first series in the country for 38 years, there will be an Englishman in their dressing room cheering as loudly as any of the players.
Sports psychologist Michael Finnigan, from the agency Advance Performance, heralds from Preston in the north of England and had never even met the South African players before the Test series began.
But the demoralising thrashing in the Natwest one-day final at Lord’s prompted some drastic changes from coach Eric Simons. Finnigan was contacted and traveled immediately to Arundel where South Africa were playing India ‘A’ in a first class warm-up match.
“I was amazed how low their confidence had fallen,” he admitted in an interview during the Oval Test. “They are such proud people and they needed to see they were over-reacting,” Finnigan said.
“I think they were expecting a guy in a white coat but once they could see I was normal and wanted to help, they were receptive. I am amazed that more time isn’t spent on the mental side of the game because you hear so many silly things. Tell a batsmen not to hit the ball in the air and he will immediately think of the last time he did it,” Finnigan says.
The team ‘shrink’ says he has spent over 200 hours ‘in conversation’ with the national squad talking about, amongst other things, courage, leadership, record-breaking and endurance. Not surprising, then, that he has made an impression on Graeme Smith – and vice-versa.
“Graeme Smith is extraordinary. He would say he has had great mentoring from Eric. They spend time talking about the non-cricketing assets of the players, about where they are mentally. Guys like Gary and Shaun, who have been around a long time, say the bond in the squad has never been as strong,” Finnigan says.
Another huge part of Finnigan’s approach is honesty. Unlike South African sports psychologist Clinton Gahweiler, who worked with the squad before and during the World Cup, the Englishman does not deny or wish away the ‘ghost’ of Hansie Cronje. It clearly still affects the squad and Finnigan believes it would be stupid to ignore the problem.
“There is some guilt still there. We have spoken in general about how to deal with the past. One of our phrases is: ‘Take the lesson, not the guilt’. But it was a big thing,” Finnigan says.
Herschelle Gibbs – “the life and soul of the squad” – has changed his approach after working with Finnigan. “He has learnt to appreciate his talent rather than be embarrassed by it.”
And Finnigan has learnt to drink cold Castles rather than warm bitter.
And he is very happy to accept the status of ‘Honourary South African’ bestowed upon him by Smith, Simons and the rest of the squad.
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