JOHANNESBURG – When Enoch Nkwe returned to South Africa last year to become head coach of the Highveld Lions, he entered a domestic cricket environment in which former Proteas stars were making waves as coaches.
Ashwell Prince had stabilised a dysfunctional dressing room at the Cape Cobras and made them contenders. Nicky Boje was at the helm when the Knights won the Sunfoil Series in 2016/17 and Mark Boucher has won at least one trophy in each of his three seasons as head coach at the Titans.
Nkwe doesn’t have any of their playing credentials at international level. He was on the cusp of making the SA A side, but injury got in the way. However there is not one way to achieving success as a coach and certainly the need to have experienced playing a sport at the highest level is not necessarily going to grant one a special advantage.
Shortly after Nkwe was appointed at the Highveld Lions, he gave an example. “Marco van Basten is a legend of Dutch football, he tried coaching and it never clicked. It doesn’t mean that if you’re a great player or captain you’ll make a great coach,” Nkwe said in an interview with The Star last year.
It’s an interesting comparison and speaks to two things about Nkwe; his love of football - he compared the Lions opener Stephen Cook to Barcelona’s Andries Iniesta, stating the pair had both come through the development institutions at their respective teams before going on to stardom - and his willingness to seek wisdom from beyond the cricket bubble.
“If you look at modern sport, as a coach if you are not open to growing and investing in yourself, to tapping into the corporate world, the strategies they use there, you won’t grow. There are other sports organisations in Europe or America which you can borrow from and that’s what I look for, something completely different to try and help the franchise.”
If you’re not a follower of domestic cricket - and judging by social media, radio phone-ins and ‘letters to the editor’ - many aren’t, then Nkwe’s appointment as the Proteas’ interim Team Director would have come as a total shock. Make no mistake, it was a surprise, but given the immediate success he had with the Lions last season - winning two trophies - and a triumph in the inaugural Mzansi Super League with the Jozi Stars, it was understandable.
But Nkwe, despite the 18 months in the Netherlands where he coached at club level and worked with that country’s men’s national side as a bowling coach, has deep coaching roots in this country.
“There are a whole lot of players that have worked with Enoch,” Kagiso Rabada said this week. “Quinton, Rassie, Reeza... I’ve worked with Enoch since age group levels and we’ve always been a successful team. He was Ray Jennings’ assistant in the under-19 side. I worked with him there.
A lot of players in the age group levels when I was there they know about Enoch. They know he is a quality coach. So it’s nothing new for me.”
Quinton de Kock, who will captain the SA T20 team in the three-match series against India later this month, concurred. “From under-19s, cub weeks when I was captain and he was coach, we’ve worked together, we understand each other. I think we’ve worked really well together, we should be alright.”
Nkwe’s first season at the Lions showed he was a structured coach. The Lions after a fractious 2017/18 season, needed that kind of discipline, while he also showed a willingness to hand over to his assistants and trust their expertise and judgement.
Of course there’ll be those who might look at his age - he’s a little less then a year older than Faf du Plessis - and wonder how he’ll garner respect among some of the elder players, but as Nkwe has pointed out, he’s coached 40 year old Chris Gayle, which was “a massive task”.
Nkwe was able to earn Gayle’s respect during the big Jamaican’s brief stint here in the MSL last year and worked with him again during the Canadian T20 tournament held a few weeks ago. A new era for the Proteas, with a new management structure around the team, will add to the challenge Nkwe will face on what is always a difficult tour to India.
In one respect having someone like him, with his worldly views on coaching and management, could be beneficial. Nkwe is an ardent follower of Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola and the structure around Proteas at the moment is very reminiscent of the shape found at Manchester City where Guardiola appoints his coaching staff and is answerable to a Director of Football.
“To learn from football is key,” Nkwe said after being appointed by the Lions last year.
He will answer to the acting Director of Cricket, Corrie van Zyl, who will also be on tour with the Proteas. It is very much a case of - as De Kock mentioned a couple of times this week - trial and error.
Nkwe has stated he’ll be applying for the ‘Team Director’ position on a permanent basis - a post that Cricket SA hopes will be filled by the time England get here at the end of the year.
Change naturally makes for apprehension. Nkwe understands that. But he also embraces it.
No one knows if he will be a success or if the new structure will work. It will need time, it will need honesty and expertise. Nkwe has shown in a short amount of time with the Lions, just what an impact he can have.
He doesn’t pretend to know it all and he’s willing to learn, from everyone, both inside and outside cricket, and that is a very good trait.