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Proteas set off for England ODI challenge in calm waters

Proteas set off for England ODI challenge in calm waters
ODI captain Keshav Maharaj says the Proteas are starting with a clean slate on the England tour. (Photo by Pankaj Nangia / Gallo Images)

CSA’s boardroom storm has abated and the national cricket team can focus on the task at hand. It’s a daunting assignment, even if the Boucher-Nkwe dynamic can be steadily managed.

The Proteas will face tough battles when they meet England over the course of the next six weeks in three formats, but at least it will be against a backdrop of calm.

Boardroom issues at Cricket South Africa (CSA), while always one scandalous decision away from flaring up, are serene at the moment. After months of skirmishes, from leadership spats to the attempt to oust coach Mark Boucher, matters have settled.

This is just as well because South Africa face a tough tour against a resurgent England — especially at Test level. Before the three Tests start though, the Proteas face three one-day internationals (ODIs) against the world champions in that format and three T20Is against England and a further three against Ireland.

The ODI team — led by spinner Keshav Maharaj — departed South Africa on Friday with a sense of optimism due to the recent stability at boardroom level.

Boucher was cleared of three charges of “gross misconduct” brought against him in January and former director of cricket Graeme Smith won his arbitration case with costs against CSA after he was charged with racism and racial bias. But Smith never reapplied for his job as director of cricket during the acrimonious saga.

Smith’s tenure ended on 31 March and the important position was vacant until 1 July, when Enoch Nkwe was appointed. That appears to have been met with favour from the players.

Over the course of the past 18 months, players have denied that CSA’s fractured leadership affected them, but it did. Maharaj admitted it this week.

“We had a brief intervention with the board,” said Maharaj.

“It’s important to bridge the gap and pave a way forward. It was a good exercise to have so that we can leave whatever baggage we had [behind], look at the positives, and leave cricket in a better place.

“As soon as we jet off, we’re starting on a clean slate and moving forward together as a unit, as a proper Cricket South Africa unit. That’s where we’re at right now,” he said. 

Boucher/Nkwe dynamic

That is welcome news, but there is potential for conflict given the dynamic between coach Boucher and director Nkwe.

Boucher will have to report directly to Nkwe now, which is an interesting role reversal. Nkwe served as assistant coach to Boucher for almost two years.

proteas england boucher

Proteas coach Mark Boucher. (Photo: Lee Warren / Gallo Images)

proteas england nkwe

South African director of cricket Enoch Nkwe. (Photo: Isuru Sameera / Gallo Images)

Several of the charges brought against Boucher earlier this year were a direct result of alleged discriminatory behaviour by Boucher towards Nkwe. But, after lodging his complaints with CSA, which formed part of the charge sheet against Boucher, Nkwe declined to testify at his disciplinary hearing.

Nkwe was upset that his concerns were interpreted as a “Nkwe versus Boucher” issue when it really related to differing coaching philosophies.

The charges against Boucher were eventually withdrawn, but the affair will shape the dynamic at the top of the Proteas men’s game in the coming weeks and months. If the pair had differing coaching philosophies less than a year ago, it’s unlikely they have changed. The history between the coach and the director has the potential to cloud issues again, although — for now — there appears to be unity.

“We had a brief chat with Enoch, but we never divulge too much in terms of the plans.

“I’ve always thoroughly enjoyed him as a person and as a coach. His philosophy towards certain things is really remarkable. It’s something we can look forward to,” Maharaj said.

“The guys in the camp are excited about the years ahead of planning and where we want to be as a unit. All we can do is wish him luck and support him on his journey in taking this team and this cricketing nation to the next level, where it should be.”

Powerful England

The England tour poses a huge challenge for the Proteas because, after four Test wins over New Zealand and India, chasing down fourth-innings totals of more than 250 each time, England are redefining the way Tests are played.

Under new coach Brendon McCullum and captain Ben Stokes they have taken their white-ball approach to the Test arena, and the Proteas will be the next team to try to find a way to stop them.

But first it’s the ODIs that take precedence. England won the last 50-over World Cup on home soil and, despite losing captain Eoin Morgan to retirement, still boast a formidable unit.

Jos Buttler is England’s new ODI captain and the team continues to set the standard with eight wins in their last nine ODIs with one no-result. South Africa has not won an ODI series in England since 1998.

“They (England) have done exceptionally well over the last few years and it will be a good test for us,” Maharaj said. “If we want to be the best in the world, then we have to play the best.

“We are going to focus on ourselves and do the basics well. We have sort of picked a squad that caters for all our needs and various combinations that we can try.

“We are so used to playing the Test format first and then into the ODIs. A change-up is good sometimes, and we always embrace it. The main thing is the guys are hungry to play cricket again.

“We are ready to showcase our talent to show how far we’ve come as a unit.

“I have only played two ODIs in England … but I think (in the past) we have been too slow to adapt to the conditions. I remember the series I was involved in (in 2017), we lost 2-1, and we only found our rhythm in the last ODI and hopefully we can replicate what we did in the last ODI in terms of adapting.

“Having said that, we have plenty of new personnel in the team compared to five or six years ago, and hopefully that exuberance of youth can add some energy to the squad and rectify things sooner rather than later,” Maharaj said.

The first ODI is on 19 July. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.

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