DURBAN - Cricketers, especially batsmen, are creatures of habit. They thrive on the familiar of routine as it puts them at ease for the bigger battles that lie in wait out in the middle.
So, in keeping with that fashion, it isn’t completely out of place that newly appointed South Africa batting coach Dale Benkenstein had just settled into a rhythm on his return to the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands, after a stellar second career in the UK, when he got the call from head coach Ottis Gibson.
“Just to get that call from Ottis was an honour. Considering the players he has played with and against over the course of his career, it was a huge honour to know that he really wanted me on board,” Benkenstein smiled.
The relationship between the pair stretches back over two decades, three countries, and countless cricketing treasures in between. They started off playing against each other in South African cricket, crossed paths through league action in the UK, then eventually won trophies together at Durham, in the glorious Indian summer of their careers.
Cricket SA will be hoping that they reproduce that winning formula over the next two years.
“We go back a long way,” Benkenstein understatedly said of his fellow Malcolm Marshall school-of-cricket graduate.
The island of Barbados has had a massive influence on Benkenstein’s cricket odyssey.
He toured there with the SA Under-19 side, then again with the SA ‘A’ side on a more extensive tour. In between those national assignments, he also took the late Marshall’s advice and went to play a season on the island.
That he and Gibson have got along as famously as they have all these years is no coincidence. They were essentially gleaned off the same production line.
They both got the seal of approval from the highly skilled and principled Marshall, and it is a badge of distinction that they have both worn with pride and honour.
“My heroes were the great West Indians, and the Barbados influence on my career has been huge,” Benkenstein acknowledged.
“I went on those trips as a young player then, of course, Malcolm Marshall had an incredible impact on my career. Even later on, when I was coaching at Hampshire, our sponsor was the Barbados Tourism Board, so I have been on many, memorable trips over there.”
The need to move back home had been eating away at Benkenstein. His children were growing up and he wanted them to be raised under the African sun.
For the last few years, his family has been back in KZN, while he slogged on in the UK season. The pang for home and family became too much, and he left Hampshire before the season was over.
Benkenstein, a former Michaelhouse head boy and their most famous cricketing alumni, tried to make his return at his alma mater, but their policy is not to employ professional coaches.
“It was disappointing, because I am a proud Michaelhouse old boy, and the school was wonderful to me. At the end of the day, though, Hilton College offered me a wonderful opportunity to be first-team coach in an excellent sporting programme,” he explained of the potentially awkward situation between the long-standing rival institutions.
“They have been wonderful to me and my family. I am even getting used to wearing the black-and-white,” he quipped.
Family is understandably Benkenstein’s priority, especially after a lengthy career which leant heavily on his wife being the rock at home.
When the tantalising offer came from Gibson, he admits there had to be some thinking made.
“It was important not to make an emotional decision. I had to make sure that it worked out for my family, because I didn’t want to be spending 200 days on the road again.”
He also didn’t want to leave Hilton in the lurch after they had done so much for him. And, of course, his fierce passion for the game wasn’t going to allow him to walk away from a chance to work with some of the finest cricketers in the history of the game.
There have already been some who have questioned his level of commitment to the job, given his Hilton duties. But Benkenstein ironed out all those issues with all parties, starting at home.
“I sat down with both Hilton and CSA, and we felt that there was scope for it to work. If I had chosen one or the other, I feel I would have really lost out,” he maintained.
With the finer details sorted, Benkenstein expressed his burning ambition to succeed in his latest role. Lest we forget, his growth as an international cricketer - and possibly captain - was stunted before it ever really got going.
“I had a limited international career. I won every domestic trophy with Natal, but realised that I wasn’t really going to play for South Africa,” he conceded.
A “season or two” in Durham became a decade, such was his influence on and off the field. He helped transform the unfancied north-east coalface of a county into a generation of gem cricketers, with talent to match their honest endeavours.
But he still wants to have an impact at the highest level, and it is clear he can’t wait to start working as batting coach of a star-studded unit.
“You look at the Proteas side and you then look to the World Cup and you say, ‘we can win this’.”