There was scepticism about the ability of Mark Boucher and Graeme Smith to instil the sort of bloody-minded determination and resilience in the national team which characterised their own careers. And quite rightly. You can’t instil that stuff in anyone. You can hope for it, encourage it, but you can’t make it happen. But those who have it can most certainly identify it.
When Smith announced Boucher’s appointment, he said he hoped the former wicketkeeper would bring some of his “renown mental toughness” to the national team and referred, on several occasions, to the requirement for “fighting spirit” at international level. Again, it was hard not to think of them as just words.
When Boucher and independent selector, Linda Zondi, said they would be “casting the net wide to see what we have out there,” it wasn’t so much about who could bowl and hit the ball. It was about what they were made of, what made them ‘tick’.
Smith wasn’t about to sit back and play the admin role in this process. He knew his role was greater than that. I’ll never forget Gary Kirsten telling the story of how he had tears in his eyes after a team talk by a young Smith in just his second year as captain of the national team.
It was Kirsten’s last Test match, against New Zealand at the Basin Reserve in Wellington in 2004. The first match in the series had been drawn in Hamilton and a Chris Cairns-inspired home side had romped to a 9-wicket victory in the second Test at Eden Park. New Zealand had never beaten South Africa in a Test series, but they sensed history was going to be made as the series moved to their spiritual home.
The visitors needed a daunting 234 in the fourth innings to draw the series and a passionate Smith, as he was to do so many times in his career, implored his fellow batsmen to put their bodies on the line if they had to, but the runs had to be scored. At 36-3 with Gibbs, Rudolph and Kallis all gone, the run-chase was stumbling. Kirsten came to the crease at number five with Smith’s words still fresh in his mind. He ground out 76 from 180 balls and his partnership of 171 with the captain all but won the game. Smith was 125 not out when the game was won.
As Director of Cricket Smith has had some frank and forthright conversations with the national players. “He asked a few guys whether they believed they had ‘made it’ when they were selected for the Proteas,” I was told. “He asked them how good they wanted to be, how long they wanted to play for. He said their national cap meant they had reached the starting line, not the finishing post. It was pretty direct stuff, but very inspiring.”
At least half a dozen players made a strong impression on Boucher, not just with their performances but their attitude – and their ability to seize their chance. Janneman Malan was dismissed by Mitchell Starc with the first ball of the ODI at Boland Park. If he had failed again in the second match in Bloemfontein, he would most likely have not played in the third and that might have been the last we saw of him. That’s how narrow the window of opportunity can be. But he scored an unbeaten 129.
Kyle Verreynne, like Malan, was only in the squad because of a series of injuries and sabbaticals for Faf du Plessis and Rassie van der Dussen. His 48 on debut and 50 in the third game were typical of a young man who has had nothing easy in life, particularly not the road he had to travel just to get his career started. He is a tough little bugger, with attitude, so you can imagine how much Boucher enjoyed working with him. He’s a wicketkeeper, too, so don’t be surprised if he makes the Test team sooner rather than later – if Quinton de Kock can be persuaded to give up the gloves in that format.
Whereas many coaches and selectors might leave it unsaid when a player was in the ‘last-chance’ saloon, Smith is too direct. Heinrich Klaasen never revealed what was said to him before the series but, apart from the backing and encouragement, you can be sure there was some realistic honesty. “Better make this one count, Klaasy, you never know how many more chances you’ll get. He scored 123*, 51 and 68*.
Charl Langeveldt is another unapologetic deliverer of hard truths. As good as he was as a player, the former prison warder is even better as a coach. Enoch Nkwe was a rare talent as an all rounder until injury cut short his career, but he found a way to survive, moved to the Netherlands and worked his backside off climbing the coaching ladder.
There is a lot to look forward to when the cricket starts again. But the world has an awful lot to get through first before that happens.
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