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CLR James’s famous dictum, “what do they know of cricket who only cricket know”, could have been written for Lance Klusener, the new coach of the Sunfoil Dolphins.
The Marxist-Trinidadian intellectual and the son of the Zululand soil may be poles apart in many ways, but they share a belief that cricket is a game and that a balance has to be struck between what happens on and off the field.
The 40-year-old former Proteas all-rounder has always had a balanced perspective on the goldfish bowl that is the international cricketer’s life. He’s long been a family man, who lives with his wife, Isabelle, and their three children at Mount Edgecombe. Aside from cricket, he fishes (a lot), hunts and spends a great deal more time than most in the bush.
It’s a lifestyle that lends a no-nonsense perspective to the exercise of bowling, catching and hitting a little red ball on a cricket field. After the 1999 World Cup, when the nation was in mourning after that traumatic semi-final tie with Australia, Klusener offered a refreshing restorative when he remarked: “Nobody died.”
Yesterday, as I chatted to the former Proteas all-rounder as we circumnavigated the field at Kingsmead, it soon became clear that this opinion had not changed.
“I came to the game late. I didn’t play any representative cricket at school really. I went into the army and played country districts cricket, but it was only much later that I started playing cricket for Natal as a career. I believe it was those life experiences I had as a young man that enabled me to gain a proper perspective on the game and to learn to face pressure and handle defeat.
“The bottom line is that you prepare properly, you do the work, so that you go on to the field believing you can win rather than hoping to win. But there are going to be days when you’re going to be beaten by a better team on the day. And when that happens, it’s not the end of the world.”
Klusener mentioned three coaches he has played under who share a quality that he values: calmness. “Graham Ford, Bob Woolmer and Phil Russell were all calm people, and that’s what a changeroom wants. Cricket isn’t rugby, with 80 minutes of frantic action, it’s four or five days of sustained action when you need to switch on to full alert at certain times and switch off as well when the opportunity presents itself. I guess it’s one of my jobs to help the players do that.”
Calmness under pressure has always been a Klusener trademark. When he came to the crease when South Africa were engaged in a run chase, he radiated serenity. “You always have more time than you think” was one of his favourite sayings, and time and again he was proved correct. One reason the Proteas have failed to land an ICC trophy this century is that they have failed in this department.
I joke with him that he’s going to have to speak to the media a lot more now than he ever did in the past. On one notorious occasion, after scoring 174 against England in Port Elizabeth in 1999/2000, the all-rounder failed to emerge for the celebratory press conference afterwards, provoking some gnashing of media teeth.
Not a great deal has changed in that department, either.
“I don’t want to spend a lot of time talking a good game. It’s not my job to be in the newspaper. It’s results on the field that will be important. If the players do well, then it’ll be their time to shine in the media. It’s my job to make them shine.”
Klusener knows that any light will seem particularly bright after the team’s long, dark tunnel of failure in recent seasons. It was under his captaincy, six long years ago, that the Dolphins last tasted success when they shared the SuperSport Series trophy with the Titans.
His challenge is now to convince his relatively inexperienced squad that they are capable of winning matches once again. “It’s not enough to think you can compete; you’ve got to believe you can win. There’s a huge difference between those two states of mind.
“My challenge is to change the mindsets of guys who believe they are still junior players and are just happy to be on the field. We don’t have the luxury of having many senior players, so these youngsters will have to raise their hands and learn to compete for victories and, ultimately, higher honours. It will require a complete change of outlook and a re-evaluation of their status in the team.”
To meet this challenge, Klusener is busy formulating a bold new approach to make things happen again at Kingsmead.
“We can’t hope to start winning again if we play the same way we’ve played in recent seasons. I want to change things. I want the Dolphins to be aggressive and entertaining.
“Ultimately we want to win something again. Whether it’s the four-day, one-day, T20 or all three, it doesn’t really matter.”
The new blueprint will, he says, prioritise victory, even at the cost of the odd defeat. It’s an approach that will require a buy-in not only from the squad, but also the curator, Wilson Ngobese, his ground staff and the rest of the union.
A meeting with the players will take place next week to thrash out a few of the coach’s ideas, and also to get some of the players’ responses.
“We want to be more aggressive, but we’re not going to be stupid about it. There are times to be aggressive and times when we will need to hold back. I think my experience as a player will help the guys make those choices.”
A by-product of this decision will be to create the physical conditions to encourage this positive brand of cricket.
In recent years, there has been less pace and carry in what has seemed to be a tired Kingsmead square, and Klusener wants his ground staff to revert to the hard, well-grassed pitches of old.
“That’s what I want. My job will then be to equip the players to deal with the new conditions. The batsmen must adjust and the bowlers will need to bowl slightly different lines and lengths as well.”
Klusener’s promise of a brave new world is an exciting one – with further announcements pending – and long-suffering Dolphins fans at last have some reason to hope for brighter days ahead.