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New head coach Geoffrey Toyana embraces his Easterns homecoming

New head coach Geoffrey Toyana embraces his Easterns homecoming
Geoffrey Toyana is relishing the challenge of taking Easterns back to the top division of South African cricket. (Photo: Lee Warren / Gallo Images)

Eastern Storm have a huge challenge in supplanting a team in the first division, but with Geoffrey Toyana in charge, their chances of promotion have improved.

Geoffrey Toyana cut his teeth in South African domestic cricket, both as a player and a coach. The free-flowing, left-handed batter played provincial cricket for the Titans and Easterns from his debut in 1995 until his retirement in 2008.

Shortly after his retirement, Toyana, under the guidance of then Easterns president Cassim Suliman, took up a coaching role at Easterns and has since built a reputation as one of the most astute cricket minds in the country.

Kagiso Rabada, Quinton de Kock and Wiaan Mulder are a few of the young cricketers for whom Toyana provided a platform at the Lions – during his spell as head coach – between 2012 and 2017, and who eventually made their debuts for the Proteas as teenagers.

He also captured four trophies during his six seasons in charge at the Johannesburg-based franchise.

Through his excellent talent identification and domestic success, Toyana led the race to replace Russell Domingo as the Proteas’ head coach in 2017. However, Cricket South Africa controversially opted for West Indian Ottis Gibson instead.

For the past four seasons, Toyana has served as assistant coach to Mandla Mashimbyi at the Titans in Pretoria, but the domestic stalwart is now preparing to head to the franchise in Benoni that “saved” his playing career.

“It’s always good to go back. It’s a place that saved my career as a player,” Toyana told Daily Maverick.

“I was out of contract at Gauteng at the time and [then coach] Ray Jennings took me to Easterns in 2002 and it ended up saving me and prolonging my career.

“I retired [from playing] in 2008, then Easterns gave me another opportunity – without me ever thinking that I would be a coach – as Cassim Suliman identified me and said he wanted me to take over Easterns.

“Basically, one week I was a player and then the next I was Easterns coach,” Toyana added.

Vark Park

Eastern Storm – as the side is now known since the restructuring of the domestic game in 2021 – plays in the second division of the first-class system and finished the last domestic season in fourth place in the Four-day series and fifth out of seven in the One-day cup.

Toyana, though, believes gaining promotion with the side next season is within reach.

“People may say, ‘Oh, [you’re coaching in] division two’, but I see it as a great opportunity. It only takes a year to gain promotion. If we can have a decent season, we can make it to division one next year,” he said.

It’s also an opportunity for the accomplished coach to tick another feat off a nearly full list of achievements in domestic cricket.

“If you look at my career, I’ve basically achieved everything in South African cricket. The only thing I have not achieved is taking a team from division two to division one,” said Toyana.

“That’s my motivation going into the job. There’s no better place for me to do it than [at] a place I call the Home of Cricket.”

Lord’s Cricket Ground in England is widely regarded as the “Home of Cricket” because it is the first stadium that was built intentionally for the game of cricket.

However, the cricketers from Benoni reinterpreted the meaning after opposition teams expressed their contempt at playing at Sahara Park Willowmoore Cricket Stadium.

“When [I] played, teams used to hate going to Benoni. They used to call it Vark Park. But to motivate ourselves, we called it ‘the Home of Cricket’,” the coach said.

Easterns fully embraced their opponents’ disdain and continued to make it as unpleasant as possible.

“I still remember teams hating it because Ray Jennings used to hide the opposition’s toilet paper [from their bathrooms],” laughed Toyana.

Youngsters such as Sinenhlanhla Zwane have a chance to blossom under the experienced coach. (Photo: Lee Warren / Gallo Images)

Getting the structures right

In his four years as assistant coach at the Titans, the side won each domestic trophy available.

The Titans are one of the wealthiest and best-resourced first-class teams in the country, whereas teams in division two – such as Easterns – have a minuscule budget to work with in comparison.

“To set up good structures in Benoni will be a start for me and to make sure I get that winning mentality in the side because I am a winner, and I’m here to win,” he said.

Since Toyana’s announcement as head coach of Eastern Storm last week, he has had more than a dozen players asking to transfer to Benoni.

“The first thing is to get our structures right and ensure we attract good players. Since I was confirmed for the job, I’ve had close to 20 phone calls from players who want to come and play for me,” he said.

“It’s a positive for me that shows players do understand my coaching philosophy and my coaching style.”

Division-two teams are, however, only allowed to contract 11 players. But they do have a solid starting team, with former Protea Mangaliso Mosehle donning gloves for the side.

Shane Dadswell of Pretoria Capitals during the Betway SA20 match between Pretoria Capitals and MI Cape Town at Centurion Park on 4 February 2023 in Centurion. (Photo: Gallo Images)

Talented youngsters Shane Dadswell, Amaan Khan and Sinenhlanhla Zwane are also contracted to the union, and Toyana has proven over the years his ability to get the best out of young players with potential.

“The squad I have at the moment is quite young, which really excites me,” Toyana added.

“Working with young players has always been a passion of mine. If a young player is talented, he will get an opportunity. The biggest thing for me is if their attitude is good.

“My philosophy revolves around setting up a good environment for growth so that players are able to come and learn as much as possible.

“The other one is understanding each player that I work with. We’re people first before we’re players. Understanding the person first will make it easier to coach him.”

The environment looks ripe for Toyana to thrive, with his duty of extracting all the potential he can from his young Eastern Storm players, as well as his penchant for honouring tradition – like removing the toilet paper from the opposition changing rooms at the Willowmoore Cricket Stadium. DM168

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

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