South Africa bow out of another ICC tournament with nothing to show for it. They have just one win under their belt and it took a bit of fluke to get them into the semi-finals in the first place. Gary Kirsten was brutal in the assessment of his own abilities, but he leaves his successor with a seemingly ill side. BY ANTOINETTE MULLER.
When Gary Kirsten was appointed coach of the South African national team there was a real air of excitement around it. He’d just taken India to the top and there was the sense that he could do the same with South Africa, that he could change things, not so much in the Test arena, but in the shorter formats of the game.
Kirsten, alongside Paddy Upton, was going to save South Africa from the stranglehold of underperformance in short-format tournaments. He now walks away almost two years after being appointed with not having changed much – not in ICC tournaments anyway.
South Africa went crashing out of the Champions Trophy in England on Wednesday in familiar fashion. Up against the wall, but completely incapable of even putting up a fight, they slumped to 80-8 in just over 22 overs.
The Proteas seemed to lack the kind of mental toughness that has been associated with them in the Test arena. While it’s two very different formats, many of the players who have overcome some difficult situations in Test cricket form part of the core line-up of the ODI team, but that kind of application seems to be completely missing in the one-day format. Coach Gary Kirsten, bowing out of his role now, has previously spoken about “the dark mist” that hangs over South African cricket. He mentioned those words again on Wednesday, but still can’t pinpoint where the failure lies exactly.
South Africa managed just one win in the entire tournament and, while they performed well in certain areas and certain points of the tournament, they lacked consistency. Much like they have throughout the past two years in one-day cricket. No less than 16 new players have entered the fray since Kirsten took over as the Proteas continuously trialled new combinations, rested Test players and were perhaps found a little bit lacking in their depth.
Heading into the semi-final, though, their batting was hardly the problem and Kirsten admits his expectations were far higher.
“I had pretty high expectations going into the semi-final because we’ve been batting really well. What do you do in a situation like that? Do you load your team with batsmen or do you back the players you’ve had all tournament?”
The top order managed just 60 runs between them and 30 of those came from Robin Peterson, promoted up the order. That’s a far cry from the contributions in previous games and Kirsten, although having no actual answer, hopes that at some point South Africa can overcome that disaster.
“I don’t think there is a secret recipe, I think we just have to hope at some point that we can cross the line in one of these semi-final events and turn it around,” the coach added.
When South Africa started to overcome all of the blips of the past, those which have haunted them and embarrassed them before, many believed that perhaps they had turned a corner and that the dark mist was lifting, but their biggest test was always going to be any sort of semi-final contest, no matter who they played. It was a collective effort of ineptitude that lead to their exit. Save for David Miller and Rory Kleinveldt’s efforts with the bat, they weren’t anywhere near the levels of where they should be, but a drop in performance under pressure is something Kirsten believes happens in every sport and although he doesn’t believe the team is lacking as individuals, he does think there is some sort of web that entangles the South African team.
“It doesn’t happen only in South African cricket. It happens in other sports, it happens in other industries and it happens to people, but at some point you have to cross the line. People will keep looking at you and saying you can’t do it. I don’t think they get emotionally hijacked as individuals, because when they go away and play for other teams, they play good cricket,” the coach said.
Kirsten leaves with a record of 15 wins and 12 losses from 29 games. It’s not the worst kind of record, but admitted that the side hasn’t moved forward. Although, that is far easier to admit now that there are no consequences to his words.
“I don’t know if I’ve left them in a better state, I’d like to have taken the team to the final at least. We haven’t improved and the question mark needs to come over me, so maybe it’s a good thing I’m leaving. There are some good signs, we play some good one-day cricket and we’ve seen some good younger players come through. We haven’t gone forward in events of this nature,” Kirsten said.
Russell Domingo takes over a sick one-day team. Sick with failure, sick with tinkering and sick with underperformance. One of the biggest questions that will hang over the post mortem is why Alviro Petersen was picked, but didn’t feature once for the Proteas.
In South Africa’s two warm-up games, both Petersen and Ingram got a run out, and while Ingram edged Petersen against the Netherlands, scoring 82 compared to Petersen’s 6, both of them struggled against Pakistan. Ingram got picked ahead of Petersen, despite Petersen being a regular opener and having been piling on the runs for an English county, while Ingram had not played cricket since April, prior to his two warm-up matches.
There are rumours of a selection dilemma, where one part of the selection committee insisted on picking a regular and in a form opener, while those in charge of the team line up preferred to mix things up. Whatever the reasoning behind not playing Petersen, it certainly cost them.
Kirsten was quite blunt.
“We need to be honest with ourselves. We did choke the game. It’s a word that we’ve become comfortable with. It’s an uncomfortable word, but you have to accept that’s what it is. They bowled well, but that doesn’t mean that a team should be 80-8. It’s a horrible world, but we’re up front about it as a team – we let oursevles down today.”
A choke it might have been, but that word has also become somewhat of a crutch. While the eleven players who walked out onto the field on Wednesday were certainly all of reasonable aptitude, it’s hard to believe that it was South Africa’s strongest combination.
They’ll go home, take some time off and lick their wounds while preparing for a one-day and T20 series against Sri Lanka under a new coach who, by the looks of it, has landed himself a pretty tough gig. Domingo is expected not only to get rid of the dark mist, but also of some seemingly flawed selection decisions which have cost South Africa dearly. DM
Photo: Gary Kirsten (Reuters)