Mark Boucher began his tenure as South Africa’s national coach with his usual bullishness as he issued a warning to their next opposition, England, ahead of the first of four Tests starting in under a fortnight.
“They’ve been saying quite a few things in the media but I’ve got one thing to say to them: Beware a wounded buffalo, especially in Africa,” Boucher said.
Having spent much of the last seven years since his international retirement involved in nature conservation projects, Boucher knows a thing or two about buffaloes. He also knows about overcoming adversity. Boucher had to put his life back together after losing sight in his left eye in a horrific injury that ended his career three Tests short of 150, before moving on to a successful career as a coach.
In four seasons with the Titans, Boucher won five trophies and could add a sixth to his name when the Tshwane Spartans play in the Mzansi Super League final on Monday. He has also overseen the elevation of Aiden Markram, Lungi Ngidi, Tabraiz Shamsi and Heinrich Klaasen to international cricket.
Now, another difficult task lies ahead. Boucher has been put in charge of rebuilding a South Africa side that has suffered reputational damage and several defeats and now sits at the bottom of the World Test Championship points table. He believes he can do it, because he has seen it done before.
“I’ve been involved in sides over the years where we have had some tough times. One of the toughest times was the Hansie Cronje saga and straight away after that, we beat Australia,” Boucher said, referring to a 2-1 ODI series win in April 2000 after Cronje admitted to his involvement in match-fixing.
Boucher scored a match-winning 55 not out in the decider to underline his ability to perform under pressure, as well as his immense self-confidence. He wants the South Africa team of 2019 to do the same.
“I think we’ve got a good chance of turning it around,” he said. “Sport is an amazing thing. It can be turned around in a couple of days but I understand there is a lot of work to be done before that.
“Our confidence is a bit down. We need to get our confidence back. There’s a wealth of knowledge in this country that can get utilised so we need to get consultants in to try and get the confidence up, get as much information going in the right direction and give the players the space to try and perform at their best.
“We’ve got the talent in this country. It needs to be nurtured a bit and given the opportunities for information to come through. In the right environment and with the right sort of communication channels, I think we can get the best out of our players.”
His assistant, Enoch Nkwe, echoed those ideas, especially after seeing first-hand the struggles of the national side in India. Nkwe was put in charge for the tour, in which South Africa drew the T20 rubber but lost the Tests 3-0.
“We felt the T20 went well and created a good foundation,” Nkwe said. “The Test series, we knew it was going to be a challenging one. There are lot of lessons to take away. We identified that we need a bit more leadership in the team. It was going to be part of a plan to tap into some great minds around the country to see how we can build the confidence of the team and the players.”
Boucher is hopeful the restoration of stability at CSA, where Graeme Smith has been appointed acting director of cricket and Jacques Faul is interim CEO, will lay the foundation for the national side’s recovery.
“When you lack leadership from up top, it does tend to seep into the lower sections of the whole train and guys start getting away with murder at the bottom,” Boucher said. “If we get the right leadership at the top, it is going to filter down and I am very confident we have got the right leadership at the top at the moment.”
He also believes a stronger structure will help deepen a talent pool that currently appears shallow, as aspiring cricketers turn to other professions or countries.
“The talent pool has probably got a little less over the years, which is a concerning factor but if we get the right leadership in place, I think we can sort that out very quickly,” Boucher said. “If you have a look around at the moment, on social media, the game has been hurt. Myself and Enoch have been put in place to get the Protea team doing well. If we look after that space, I think we will get the crowds and fans behind us again and things will start to change.”
Back the Scorchers, bank on Mitchell Marsh and Jhye Richardson
January 20: Perth Scorchers v Sydney Thunder in Perth
Our XI: Alex Hales, Josh Inglis, Usman Khawaja, Liam Livingstone, Mitchell Marsh, Alex Ross, Chris Morris, Daniel Sams, Jhye Richardson, Fawad Ahmed, Gurinder Sandhu
NOTE: We might not always be able to tip you off about a late injury (or other relevant) updates.
Captain: Mitchell Marsh
In Perth, Marsh has been very, very good. Barring one game, he has scored consistently; overall, he has 365 runs from 11 innings at a strike rate of 150.82 and average of 40.55. The Scorchers’ hopes rest with Marsh and it’s a good time to keep him as your captain.
Vice-captain: Jhye Richardson
A total of 14 wickets from 11 games at an impressive economy rate of 7.19 – Richardson is the leading wicket-taker for the Scorchers. The Thunder batting is not their strongest suit and Richardson could be vital towards taking advantage of it.
The tournament’s leading wicket-taker with 20 strikes at an economy of 7.76, Sams picks up a wicket every 11 balls. That means he is expected to take at least two per game. He has gone wicketless only once, and must be picked.
He has gone under the radar somewhat, but Ross has been in form in the last few games. He has 217 runs at a strike rate of 137.34. In the last two games, he scored 51 and 32. The Thunder middle order has struggled and Ross is key towards holding the innings together.
Josh Inglis: Inglis has 324 runs at a strike rate of 158.04. He is the second-highest run-getter for the Scorchers and his starts are key for them doing well. In the last ten games, Inglis has only two single-digit scores.
Fawad Ahmed: Fawad has been brilliant this season: 13 wickets and conceding just seven runs per over. He has gone wicketless in only one game in the last ten matches, and could be another bowler to exploit the weak middle order of the Thunder.
Point to note
The average first-innings score in Perth is 170. Pace bowlers have an economy of 9.03 while the spinners go at 7.3.
India willing to ‘persist’ with KL Rahul as wicketkeeeper – Virat Kohli
The “Dhoni, Dhoni” chants reverberated around the Chinnaswamy Stadium on Sunday. The former India captain didn’t suddenly make an appearance. This was the crowd showing its displeasure towards KL Rahul‘s missed stumping to reprieve Steven Smith. Without the benefit of replays, it would have been hard to tell that the ball had ricocheted off Smith’s pads to evade Rahul. It happened that quickly.
Virat Kohli didn’t like what he heard and prompted the crowd to go “KL, KL” as he was shown on the big screen. Soon enough, the crowd changed their chants to “Rahul, Rahul”. This wasn’t the most significant moment of the game, of course, but it told you how much the Indian captain values Rahul’s presence and he spoke of the “sacrifice”, comparing to the one Rahul’s illustrious namesake – Dravid – made at the 2003 World Cup for the team’s balance.
“If you look at the 2003 World Cup where Rahul bhai started keeping, the balance became different because you could play an extra batter and guys at the top could really play positive cricket,” Kohli said at the post-match briefing after India had bounced back to win the three-match series 2-1 against Australia.
And even if Kohli emerged as the Player of the Series, Rahul played a massive hand, too: from doubling up as a wicketkeeper to marshalling the lower order to opening the batting – performing every role with an air of nonchalance while providing the much-required “balance” his captain said the team was after. “So, look, he is very open to playing anywhere because he is a proper batsman who can do you good in any format and at any position in the game,” Kohli said on Rahul performing multiple roles.
Rishabh Pant’s concussion in the Mumbai ODI might have prompted India to experiment with Rahul as the wicketkeeper for a game or two, but Kohli said the team management was keen to extend that to the New Zealand series, too, that begins with a T20I series on January 24 . Kohli was emphatic in his view that Rahul deserved a longer run with the gloves before he was judged, and having endured his fair share of being moved up and down in the batting order, and being in and out of the team, it was only fair he be given the extra opportunities in his new role. Yet at the same time, Kohli also didn’t want to be drawn into commenting on whether that would mean Pant, Sanju Samson and possibly Dhoni being pushed behind in the pecking order.
“That was a spicy question,” Kohli said jokingly, when asked about the wicketkeeping race. He laughed, and then continued, “Rahul really brings in a good balance if he can keep and bat that well in that position (No. 5). He has come into the slot and he has done well so we will have to persist with that a little bit and see where that takes us and not necessarily be confused about the other options we have.”
The one significant advantage India accrue from playing Rahul as wicketkeeper is they can field an additional batsman in Manish Pandey, who is one of the best fielders in the squad as he showed in Rajkot, taking a screamer to dismiss David Warner. “So I think lack of clarity in terms of positions has really hurt us in the past. Now that we understand that this feels right, we will go ahead with that for a while and figure out if this is the right thing to do or not,” Kohli said. “You can chop and change immediately and create confusion among the group. I don’t see any reason why we should change this balance. It has done well for the team and we will continue with the same for a while.”
Rahul kept his side of the bargain by scoring fluently in three outings, including a match-winning 80 off 52 balls in India’s must-win game in Rajkot, notwithstanding his yo-yoing batting position. In Mumbai, he batted at No. 3, was pushed to No. 5 in Rajkot and finally opened the batting in Shikhar Dhawan’s absence in Bengaluru. In Rajkot, he was mostly tidy behind the stumps and even quipped, “I hope I’ve kept our bowlers happy.” His tall frame hasn’t been an obvious hindrance yet to his wicketkeeping, but it is one thing keeping as a back-up, and another to do it regularly. What does help Rahul is strong fundamentals that helped him become a state regular as a wicketkeeper in age-group cricket, before he assumed batting as his primary responsibility.
In the recently-concluded Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy, Rahul’s wicketkeeping skills were much lauded, especially under pressure in a tense final, in which he calmly gathered a flat throw from the deep in the final over to effect a crucial run-out that proved to be the turning point. Having also kept regularly in the Vijay Hazare Trophy, the 50-over competition prior to that, while also opening the batting, Rahul has shown he has what it takes, and Kohli is happy to back him for the moment.
“He won’t go slam bang from ball one but he can do what he did in Rajkot just by playing good cricketing shots,” Kohli said of Rahul’s batting. “So I think solid game plan and understanding of his game is helping. He has reflected on what he needs to do in the last five-six months and he has come a long way. These are good signs for us. It gives a boost to the team because he keeps as well. It definitely allows us to play an extra batsmen which strengthens our batting massively. That is a very important factor as far as the team balance is concerned.”
‘The last six or eight months have been a revelation’ – Virat Kohli
Intensity, body language and learning to take tosses out of the equation have been key to India’s roaring start to 2020. This was Virat Kohli‘s assessment as he drew satisfaction from two hard-fought wins that helped India take the Australia series 2-1 after a ten-wicket pounding in Mumbai.
On Sunday, India showed a great mix of intent and caution in their chase after restricting Australia to 286. India were a frontline batsman short after Shikhar Dhawan didn’t open the batting to nurse his left shoulder bruise sustained while fielding in the fifth over of the match, but Kohli and Rohit Sharma toyed with the bowling, alternating between taking the lead role and anchor in a 137-run second-wicket stand that took the game away from Australia. Sharma brought up his century, Kohli missed his by 11 runs and Shreyas Iyer blitzed the fast bowlers, particularly Mitchell Starc, before Manish Pandey hit the winning runs. All of this, Kohli thought amounted to something special.
“Our partnership was a little different from what we’ve done in the past,” Kohli said. “We were a batsman short, and already we had to take a call about who bats where. I think experienced guys have to step up in games like these. We knew that the plan Australia would have is to get one of us out early so that they could put us under pressure, because Shikhar was in no condition of striking the ball as he should. From that point of view, it was one of the most calculated partnerships we’ve had.
“We’ve had many flamboyant partnerships as well, where both of us are just going from each end but today I had to play second fiddle. Rohit was settled in, he knew the pace of the wicket. In between, I gained momentum, so he started playing the anchor role. Then later, Shreyas took pressure off me. So it’s satisfying that we had three good partnerships back-to-back, and it just put things in our favour. We knew Australia is going to come hard at us with the ball. They put enough pressure, but we were up to the mark, we played in the most professional manner that we could.”
Kohli was particularly delighted at the series win because it came against an “even better side to the one that came last year and won.” He was most pleased about the character they showed in bouncing back after receiving a pounding in Mumbai. He then elaborated on how the team has consciously worked towards developing a ruthless mindset by taking tosses out of the equation, and sustaining their aggressive body language when pushed to a corner.
This, he said, was discussed soon after their World Cup semi-final exit against New Zealand. “You can’t always look for a situations that go your way at the toss,” he started. “If we like chasing as a team, it doesn’t mean we press the panic button if we lose the toss. We’ve to stay composed enough to put in strong performances, which we’ve done.
“We’ve literally taken the toss out of context, and we’re as prepared as possible to do something the opposition asks us to do. That’s been the difference. Even if we lose the toss, we have the belief that we can play expressive cricket to get results our way. The last six or eight months have been a revelation and the younger guys stepping up is a very good sign for Indian cricket.”
Kohli admitted to being complacent last year, when India conceded the ODI series to Australia despite being 2-0 up. It was something they were desperate to shake off, especially against a full-strength Australia side this time.
“Last year after 2-0 up, we thought we’re definitely going to win one of the three at home, but they showed us that they understand these conditions very well now, having played here a lot in the IPL and so many tours over the years,” Kohli said. “So today, although they had a stronger side than last time, we thought if we play good enough, we can beat this team.
“The only thing we needed to be wary of was our body language and intent because that’s Australia’s strongest point. All the teams in the world are skilled but these guys play with the intent of making things happen every over you play against them. So you can’t take your foot off the pedal at all, that’s what we’ve done in the last two games.
“The partnerships that I mentioned today, even the singles were with intent. We didn’t want to give them a feeling of we don’t know what’s going on. There was surety, body language, intent and once we get a strong partnership in, we’re going to take the game away. That is the message [we sent out].”
While India’s batting clicked, the bowling somewhat flew under the radar. The spinners were relentless, as was Mohammed Shami with his yorkers. It was put to Kohli if he thought Jasprit Bumrah returning with just one wicket in the series was a failure. While he started as if he had dismiss the question, he threw light on what Bumrah himself felt.
“With Jasprit, you can always focus on the guys who get wickets but how things are looked at from the outside is different to how things are perceived from the inside,” he started. “We understand the kind of impact he has made in the last two games. He was probably the most disappointed and hurt after the first game because he didn’t get any wicket and didn’t put them under pressure.
“So he took it upon himself to do the job for the team, contain runs and in turn, the other guys were rewarded because he created the pressure. I think his death bowling in the last two games were outstanding and the areas he hit with the new ball today and in the last game was very special. He has contributed massively to these wins. It might not reflect in the scorebooks but his contributions have been very crucial.”
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