There needs to be a shift towards finding an identity, tactical philosophy and consistency in results under Mark Boucher this season. His honeymoon period is done, writes SA Cricket Magazine editor, Ryan Vrede.
Just over a year ago Mark Boucher was appointed as head coach of the Proteas. He’d done well at the helm of the Titans, winning two domestic T20 titles, two one-day title and a four-day series trophy.
However, the four-year contract he was offered raised eyebrows. Since 2010, successful candidates for the position have only been offered two-year deals, which, upon review, could be extended. Furthermore, the job was never advertised.
This elicited cries of ‘jobs for mates’, given that former team-mate and close friend Graeme Smith made the decision in his capacity as Cricket South Africa’s Director of Cricket.
Smith and then interim CSA CEO Jacques Faul explained that they only had a short window before the looming England tour to make the appointment and wouldn’t have been able to complete the process before the start of that tour, had the job been advertised.
Smith then outlined why he’d appointed Boucher: ‘I have brought Boucher on board because I feel he will bring the toughness to turn a young and inexperienced Proteas squad into a battle-ready outfit. With his experience of a long career as an international cricketer he has first hand experience of what it takes to succeed in the Test arena,’ he said.
Boucher inherited a team who had won just one of their previous four Test series and three of their previous 10 Tests. He had less than two weeks to prepare a relatively inexperienced Test squad for a four-Test series against England, one of the world’s best red-ball teams. The expectation was rightly low and Boucher was spared much of the blame for a largely dismal showing in that series.
The global pandemic that halted the Proteas’ schedule in March has undoubtedly compromised Boucher’s capacity to build the team in his image and make strides towards fulfilling the mandate of instilling the ‘toughness’ Smith referenced. He has no full-time captain to be his voice and carry his presence and energy on the field. The coach/captain relationship is critical when seeking to build consistently successful Test teams.
Coaching in a bio-secure bubble further complicates things, given that the team trains in small groups at different times, and team-building events, which are crucial for building team cohesion and gees, aren’t permitted.
Furthermore, Smith would do well to shield Boucher from feeling any of the effects of the mess CSA is at executive level too. Ditto the political influence that has ramped up following the minister of sport Nathi Mthethwa’s intervention in the leadership crisis at CSA. Boucher has a complex enough job as it is.
All of this will test Boucher’s competency to the limit, shining a light on his adaptability, lateral thinking and man management, and ability to sell a vision and unite a team in pursuit thereof, among other dimensions of competency in this context.
Boucher is a Proteas’ great, and hence enjoys considerable goodwill from the public and media. However a poor run of results will quickly eroded that goodwill, particularly if, like Boucher, you have no track record of coaching success in international cricket. Indeed it was Gary Kirsten’s incredibly successful tenure as India head coach that bought him time to shape the Proteas into the formidable team they became under him. Boucher certainly doesn’t have the calibre of players Kirsten had available to him, but he will be expected to wring every ounce of potential out of the resources he has.
Going forward, assessments of defeats will begin to include questions about his contributions as head coach. Under Boucher, the Proteas, particularly in Test cricket, have to start to mould a discernible identity and tactical philosophy, and achieve a level of consistency that has been sorely lacking in recent years.
The team has a demanding Test schedule over the next year, hosting Sri Lanka (two Tests), then travelling to Pakistan (two Tests), hosting Australia (three Tests) and then hosting India for a three-Test series at the end of 2021.
During this period, Boucher must show himself to be worthy of the generous contract which reflects a deep level of trust and belief in him. That starts with winning the series against Sri Lanka, who hasn’t played any form of cricket since March.
Anything else should be considered a failure.