When David Warner was dropped for the second time, it became clear there was something really wrong with this South Africa team. Morne Morkel came in, unlike many times when he simply almost came in, and the ball took off one of this Centurion pitch’s many uneven parts and Warner cut hard at a ball that was flying upwards. The edge went very quick, and kept going up, in the direction of second slip.
It was a hard catch, and it went down.
Second slip is where Jacques Kallis stood during the last three decades.
Ryan McLaren and Graeme Smith were quite clear that the reason South Africa chose to bowl first was because of history and statistics. Michael Clarke thought the pitch might play up for a session, then even out after lunch. Australia lost three wickets before lunch, one after lunch. Sometimes you can look at the numbers and read them exactly right, and still be wrong.
Smith would have made this decision in conjunction with the stats-loving Russell Domingo.
Domingo is sitting in the chair that Gary Kirsten used to sit in as South Africa’s head coach.
Old-school cricket wisdom, the sort that leans on bars and tells you why the youngster won’t make any runs against a real attack, tells you that how a side acts in the field shows where they are mentally. Well South Africa acted like a side that didn’t believe in themselves. They fielded like a side without hope. And they did it on day one, before they truly felt the power of Mitchell Johnson.
They held most of their catches that day. But they fumbled almost everything else. Morkel moved around the field terribly slowly, except for the moment he hit the ground incredibly slowly. Hashim Amla walked past a ball in the outfield. There were overthrows. And if they had a plan, Smith’s captaincy did everything they could to hide it.
By day three, when they had already been Johnsoned, they added dropping multiple catches to the overall act.
They did all of it without a fielding coach. Mike Young, fielding coach under Kirsten was gone (to Australia), and had not been replaced. The former conditioning coach, Rob Walter, was also heavily involved in preparations for fielding but he is now the Nashau Titans coach.
There are many who think there are too many people around a cricket team as there is. But surely in modern cricket, fielding is a part of the game that needs a full-time person in charge of it. And it might be too simple to say that South Africa only fielded that way because they didn’t have a fielding coach.
But surely it couldn’t hurt.
India turned up with a new team in South Africa. They played like young men trying to make a point. Their batting line up looked like something that will haunt people for the next ten years. And they handled the South African attack well, although often not all at once. Virat Kohli, Cheteshwar Pujara, Murali Vijay and Ajinkya Rahane all played top knocks. They went very close to winning the first Test (and then losing it). In the second Test, India made 334 in the first innings. South Africa made 500. Kallis made 115. South Africa won the Test, and the series.
Had Kallis not played in that series, it is possible that South Africa would have lost that Test.
Against Pakistan in the UAE, South Africa lost the first Test and won the second, drawing the series against a team ranked well below them. Kallis took no wickets and made 12 runs in that series. It was the first Test series that Kirsten was not coach for. Domingo had not started brilliantly.
The only thing faster than Mitchell Johnson at the moment is the speed at which sides start to do emergency introspection after he has bashed them. There is something about playing Australia (and by that I mostly mean Mitchell Johnson) that strips every part of your game to the bone. If South Africa were going to play any opposition after Kallis retired, Australia was certainly the worst choice.
South Africa love allrounders. They love them more than any other country, and they provide more than any other country. And they lost a king.
But they couldn’t replace him with a king. Sure they could have tried someone like Obus Pinaar, to see if he was the next chosen one (a double century in first-class cricket and a bowling average of 24.16 bowling left-arm quick). But they didn’t take the chance with him.
Instead they replaced Kallis with two allrounders: McLaren at No. 7, Robin Peterson at No. 8. Two players who have done all they can to get the most out of themselves, who can provide in many different ways. But they aren’t proper Test allrounders. Peterson is not strong enough to bat at seven consistently and in 15 Tests he has taken 38 wickets at 37.26. McLaren has only three first-class three hundreds from 100 matches. He has bowling talent, but he is not in the best five seam bowlers in South Africa.
They are both bandaids over the open Kallis wound. Carrying a partially covered wound is not the way to play Mitchell Johnson.
McLaren batted at No. 7 against Australia, Faf du Plessis batted there against India. In this Test, du Plessis moved up to No. 4 – the Kallis spot.
Gary Kirsten was a tough son-of-a-bitch cricketer, who put as high a price on his wicket as almost any before him for over 100 Tests. He scored 188 not out in a World Cup game. He coached India to the top of the test Test rankings and helped them win a World Cup. He was a South African playing legend and a winning coach. He was tough, and smart. It would have taken a real maverick, or someone properly stupid, to not listen or follow his advice. He took on the batting coaching himself, as he had done when working with MS, Virender, Rahul and Sachin.
The man who replaced him doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page, and his name is spelt incorrectly on the South Africa cricket team Wikipedia page.
Domingo was the man who gave Kirsten his first coaching job. He has a good record in domestic cricket, helping the Warriors to limited-overs glory and also a runners-up finish in the Champions League. But he wasn’t a first-class player. He is a career coach. And he has taken over the best group of cricketers on the planet.
Domingo is friendly and personable. Few have a bad word to say about him. But just because he was groomed by Kirsten doesn’t mean he is going to have the same impact. Grooming coaches can go horribly wrong. As an assistant you are a shoulder to cry on, a man of responsibility, but not the man. And it can be hard for everyone to start thinking that way about you. Especially if you’re not the barking type, and the captain is a long-standing leader and legend.
Then there is the basic resentment towards coaches that cricket has. The young players might be used to having them around. But many ex-players still don’t trust most coaches, and they certainly don’t trust coaches who haven’t played at the highest level.
So all Domingo has to overcome is being a non-playing coach who was groomed to replace a legend while ex-players sharpen their swords and whilst being deprived of the most important player his country has ever produced.
It was Domingo who recently stated that Kallis’ maturity; calmness and presence will be missed in his retirement. It was maturity and calmness that could have helped when Johnson almost tore Smith’s head off in the first innings at Centurion.
When Australia made the (very brief) world record score in that eventful ODI at the Wanderers, it was Kallis who joked that Australia’s score was under par to lighten the mood.
A joke like that, from a man like Kallis, could do wonders.
Also the stern nature of Kirsten might have come in handy as session after session South Africa came off having fielded like the game was new to them. Kirsten got on well with senior players but wasn’t afraid to set clear boundaries and demanded the best from his players. While he was there, they often played exactly as he asked them.
Ryan McLaren took a rocket to the side of the head. He turned from the crease and did a slow walk and kneel as people came from everywhere to see if he was okay. Even with a helmet, it looked like brutal treatment. Without a helmet it would have resulted in much more than a small trickle of blood. He faced up to the next ball, and played it well. After tea he faced some more short balls. This time all he could do was find some glove through to the keeper.
There is little coaching you can do to play Johnson. According to AB de Villiers, you have to be willing to take some on the body. McLaren went one better. But he is a tall man with a first class average of 30.26; right now, to Johnson, that is chum. Peterson decided to just swing away, trying to confuse Johnson.
There is no coaching technique or advice from a legend that can help you through that.
Russell Domingo now has a 2-2 record from five Tests with the world’s best team (at least statistically) playing for him. He is playing two more Tests against a team with the seeming ability to burp magic rainbows on demand. If he pulls this off, and turns his team around by surfing into the tidal wave, he might be on his way to legendary status.
Right now, he looks very much like he is standing with a clipboard armed with stats, history and two average allrounders in the shadow of two giants, and doing all of it against a fire-breathing wyvern armed with nuclear weapons.