The appointment of ex-Proteas players to key international coaching positions despite most having a complete lack of experience is perplexing and potentially damaging for the game. It’s time we start giving elite coaching the respect and attention it deserves, writes RYAN VREDE.
It started with Mark Boucher’s appointment to the Proteas head- coaching position despite the Cricket South Africa board ignoring its own recruiting and appointment protocol.
Boucher had the experience of coaching a franchise team, but he trumped Enoch Nkwe, the man many thought would succeed Ottis Gibson.
At the time director of cricket Graeme Smith justified the decision, saying: “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.”
Boucher’s record across all three formats is mediocre. It appears his “long career as an international cricketer” has done very little to aid his ability to coach an elite international team.
Smith and Boucher immediately appointed Proteas icon Jacques Kallis as a batting consultant. Kallis’ experience extended to a stint with the Kolkata Knight Riders, a job he got on the weight of his reputation and ties to the franchise. In Kallis’ last season at KKR, his team finished fifth out of eight teams.
Not having any Test or ODI coaching experience didn’t matter for Kallis. Indeed, he was later snapped up by England. You know, for the vibes.
Recently, Ashwell Prince, who has a dismal record with the Cape Cobras, was recruited by Bangladesh. Last week it was announced that JP Duminy, who’d been appointed batting coach of the Lions earlier this year on the weight of a couple of consulting gigs at franchise level, would consult to the Proteas for the T20 World Cup.
Then on Monday, Vernon Philander, who came out of retirement this year to sign a deal with the Cobras, had been appointed as a bowling coach for Pakistan at the showpiece tournament. You guessed it – zero coaching experience.
The lazy accusation will be that I’m anti-South African. The more considered one is that I’m pro-cricket.
The notion that being a very good or great player will easily translate into being a successful coach is fundamentally flawed. Some great players develop into successful coaches, but those are extremely rare in any sport.
In January I wrote a piece on Kallis’ appointment with England explaining my perspective. I argued in part:
“Indeed, if you cast your eye across the sporting landscape at present, you can count on one hand how many great players are at the helm of dominant teams.
In football, Pep Guardiola at Manchester City was a great midfielder who progressed to build a decorated coaching career. It would be remiss not to note that he has only ever coached teams comprising some of the world’s best players. That, however, is no guarantee of success, and shouldn’t diminish what he has accomplished.
One of the best current managers in football, Jurgen Klopp, wasn’t a playing great. Neither was Jose Mourinho. Sir Alex Ferguson, who built a dynasty at Manchester United in the 90s and early 2000s, was an average player.
In basketball, the NBA’s most successful coach of recent times, Steve Kerr, was a key member of the Bulls’ dominant unit in the 90s, but isn’t considered a great. In American football, Bill Belichick, the league’s most decorated coach, never played professional sport.
I could go on citing examples of average players who’ve turned into great coaches. The converse wouldn’t take me that long.
In a cricketing context, Gary Kirsten oversaw a highly successful period in charge of India and the Proteas. He is an iconic player, one whose 21 Test centuries and nearly 8,000 Test run puts him in the conversation as a great – certainly in a Proteas context.
In his book ‘What sport tells us about life’, former England batsman Ed Smith tackles the issue of sporting genius, writing: ‘Scratch a brilliant sportsman deeply enough and you’ll reach a layer of self-certainty in his own destiny. The greater the sportsman, usually the more convinced he is of his own predestined greatness.
‘The big stage means it must be his stage, victory has been arranged on his terms, it is his destiny to win the World Cup, Olympics or Ashes. It might be perfectly rational for a great player to believe he has a good chance of decisively influencing the big occasion. But that isn’t what he thinks. He thinks it is inevitable. After all, well-balanced self-awareness and genius seem so rarely to co-exist.’
We could have a lengthy debate about under what set of circumstances, especially in their formative years, these great players are moulded. There is no debate, though, that these players cannot teach others without their extraordinary gifts to have this mindset, from which their technical brilliance flows.
Batting is a lonely job and there are a myriad stimuli battling for your attention. Only the great players are able to filter most of those out.
In my 14 years’ experience as a sports journalist, I’ve seen one common thread in all of the great players I’ve interviewed – their inability to describe their thinking in decisive, match-defining moments they were central to. This is because they were doing that while others were thinking.
The two happen simultaneously for the greatest players. This renders opponents who have to think, and then do, helpless. Smith writes: ‘The truism is that the best players seem to have “more time”. One neglected explanation is that self-belief operates like a partial stun-gun on opponents. By the time you are finished asking, “What the hell is he going to do now?” the champion player has already stolen a march.’
The struggle these types of players have to comprehensively articulate their thoughts in a coaching environment is part of the reason so few of them go on to be great coaches. This is understandable when you’ve spent the bulk of your career not thinking, but doing.
Kallis is undoubtedly one such player. Again, there is no question that his mere presence has power (as is the case for all of the players-turned-coaches mentioned in this piece). But that alone won’t facilitate good international players reaching the ceiling of their potential.”
I believe in the science of elite-level coaching and the positive impact a great coach can have. I also believe that an inexperienced or ill-equipped coach can, at least, stunt a players’s development, and, at worst, ruin a career altogether.
Playing experience at an elite level should never carry more weight than a candidate who has learned the science of elite-level coaching in a high-performance environment. The two are not the same. The skills learned from playing the game at that level, and the skills required to coach effectively at that level are two completely different things.
How is Philander equipped to diagnose technical issues in a fast- bowler’s action, and then rehabilitate that action? What experience does Duminy have in successfully remedying any technical issues that plague elite batters, particularly those who are in the infancy of their T20 careers, like Aiden Markram and Temba Bavuma, for example? What elite-level coaching success does Prince bring to Bangladesh, and where are the batters who testify to Kallis transforming their game?
These things matter because the quality of the game is directly linked to the quality of the coaching elite players receive. In the absence of qualified, experienced and progressive coaches appointed to top jobs at domestic and, more importantly, international cricket, the game will be a shadow of what it can be.
South African cricket needs to invest in elite-level professional coaches if it hopes to be a force in the game once more. Failing that, a descent into chronic mediocrity is inevitable.