A couple of years ago the South African ‘A’ team went on a controversial tour to Zimbabwe under the captaincy of a very young Graeme Smith.
Erroll Stewart effectively ended his playing career by declining selection on moral grounds while Smith was given a gentle wrap over the knuckles for daring to admit the team had seen riot police beating the daylights out of a food queue.
The team performed well and, as always on a cricket tour to Zim, it was possible to imagine that everything was just fine and dandy provided you didn’t stray too far from the prescribed route between the Monomotapa Hotel and the various grounds being used for the matches in Harare.
At the end of the tour the oldest player in the squad – 37-year-old Steve Elworthy – made an extraordinary claim about the youngest player in the squad when he described Smith as the best captain he had ever played under. It was quite a vote of confidence, and a prophetic one, too.
But my most abiding memory was of a moment at the very beginning of the tour when I saw the two coaches in charge of the squad struggling with a couple of 10 kilogramme bags of maize meal and a couple of five litre tins of cooking oil. What on earth was going on?
It turned out to be a beautiful story. Back in Cape Town, before departure for Zim, Paul Adams had persuaded one of the coaches to carry this excess baggage up north in order to bring relief to the family of his girlfriend who were struggling to make ends meet under Robert Mugabe’s unfortunate regime. Not many coaches would have agreed to do it, but this one did.
It was Vinnie Barnes and he was in joint charge of the squad with Mickey Arthur. They formed a brilliant team. Popular but firm, they complemented each other like pizza and beer.
Arthur and Barnes lived together for almost five months at the last academy two years ago and their philosophies on cricket and life, always close, virtually fused. Not that they always agreed with each other, but they shared their disagreements and viewpoints and learnt as much from them as they did from their agreements.
I had rarely seen a team ‘spirit’ created as quickly as I did on that tour. It might sound strange, but there was an ‘A’ team culture and pride that was almost peculiar in its enthusiasm. It was ‘just’ the ‘A’ team, after all.
What was all the fuss about? And what was someone like Elworthy jumping about being so enthusiastic for – surely he’d seen and done it all before? He didn’t need to be on an ‘A’ tour to Zimbabwe, did he? No. But he sure as hell had a good time and played as hard and committed as he did during the World Cup three years before.
Why all this reminiscing? Well, it was no secret that both Arthur and Barnes had made the initial shortlist of six candidates to become national coach. Actually, come to think of it, it was supposed to be a secret. Anyway…
Then it came to my attention that both Arthur and Barnes had made it to the last three! The third candidate, I was told, was a foreigner.
The ‘foreigner’ has been an interesting one right from the start. I suppose we should all have known it was a ruse, a false trail, a distraction right from the very start when Steve Waugh was mentioned as a possible candidate.
Oh please. Just like George W.Bush is a candidate for the position of Greenpeace Chairman. There is no foreign candidate – and I don’t think there ever was.
So if there is a chance of the Vinnie/Mickey team reforming at the helm of the national team, there is a great deal of reason to be both relieved and excited. Barnes’ contribution to the team has been under-appreciated as assistant under both Eric Simons and Ray Jennings while Arthur has tackled the political and social challenges presented by the Eastern Cape franchise with courage, determination…and success.
Maybe I’m hopelessly wrong. Maybe Geoff Marsh is going to give up the newspaper delivery round he currently supervises in Perth and gallop into Jo’burg to lead South Africa cricket to great and glorious days. Or perhaps Rod Marsh’s animated denials about taking over in SA were another cover-up.
But I don’t think I am wrong. At least, I hope I’m not. Local is lekker.
Questions? Comments? Suggestions? Feel free to get in touch.