Is Proteas coach Mark Boucher's SJN apology enough to keep his job?
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CAPE TOWN - MARK Boucher was a fantastic wicket-keeper/batsman for South Africa. His records are unlikely to ever be broken.
Equally, his Cricinfo profile claims him to be “relentlessly competitive, invariably aggressive, and as hard and uncompromising as the new ball.”
All attributes of a warrior that relished each and every battle in the trenches, none more so than when he was at the crease on both occasions South Africa crossed the line at Edgbaston 2008 to secure the first Test series win in England post-isolation and also at the Wanderers in the epic 438 game against Australia two years earlier. Such feats earn legendary status and divine immortality.
Australia’s Justin Langer is of equal pedigree and character. He is half of arguably one of the premier opening partnerships – along with Matthew Hayden – ever to stride out and face the new ball, and an integral member of the best Test unit since the halcyon days of the West Indies.
Furthermore, he is cut from the same cloth as Boucher, filled with all the grit and tenacity that made him such a feared competitor during his playing days. Langer was knocked out by a bumper in his first and 100th Test, while it took a bail in the eye that almost blinded him to end Boucher’s playing days. Both also have limitless passion for their respective countries and desperately want to see them do well.
It is for this reason they answered the call to coach the Proteas and Baggy Greens when they were at their most vulnerable. As Boucher states in his submission to Cricket SA’s Social Justice and Nation Building hearings, that he felt upon taking the job in December 2019 was at a time when South African cricket was in a “crisis” and that he “sincerely felt he could make a difference”. Equally, Langer was tasked with restoring Australian cricket’s dignity after enduring their lowest point in its history due to the dreadful 2018 Sandpapergate affair in Cape Town.
Both Boucher and Langer believed due to their vast playing experience – 255 Tests collectively plus plenty of white-ball cricket – and the fact they had managed relative success with their franchises (Titans and Perth Scorchers) they were equipped for international team management. Their former teammates also subscribe to the narrative, and publicly provide support in the media, that due to their excellent playing careers which were marked by an incredible work ethic, that they would automatically morph into being good international coaches. In Boucher’s case it’s what got him the job, as his former captain Graeme Smith in his now role as Cricket SA Director of Cricket, appointed him unilaterally.
Unfortunately, in both instances it has not quite worked out as planned. Langer’s had a longer time of it, and enjoyed success along the way such retaining the Ashes in 2019 in England for the first time since 2001, but he now faces a full-scale mutiny of both players and support staff because of his management style. The fact that the team’s results have been mediocre fuels the fire even more. And the Australian media have not been afraid to let the coach know that a coup d'etat was erupting within his dressing room.
Boucher’s troubles have been a bit more complex. It was always going to be as head coach of South Africa – a country obsessed with race due to still open wounds sustained during a blood-spilled period of white minority rule. From the moment he took charge, Boucher was not only putting fires out on the field, but also off it as his relationship with Smith was placed under scrutiny. The fact that the much-promised results were also not forthcoming was like throwing red meat to the lions for his detractors – with South Africa losing five consecutive T20I series, and winning just one Test series out of three under his tutorship prior to the West Indies and Ireland tours.
His supporters, though, cried about the lack of player availability due to the Indian Premier League and, well, Covid-19. Patience was called for. Hold the judgement when everyone is back in the saddle against the Windies and Ireland they screamed.
To Boucher’s credit, South Africa’s 2-0 victory in the Caribbean was the Proteas’ first Test series win on foreign soil since 2016/17, while the subsequent 3-2 series win over the current T20 world champions was immense. It was followed up by 3-0 T20I clean sweep of the Irish, although a first-ever ODI loss to the men from the Emerald Isle left an indelible stain on the tour.
But it is during this period that a ticking time bomb was detonated that could ultimately sink Boucher’s ship. The SJN hearings had exposed plenty of the hurt former black players and coaches endured their careers, but none had been more damaging than when former Proteas spin bowler Paul Adams claimed that he was called a “brown sh*t” by his former teammates, which included Boucher.
There was no turning back now. How was Cricket SA going to manage a situation where their men’s national team coach was implicated in alleged racist behaviour? How was Boucher going to respond?
Boucher this week apologised “sincerely” in his submission to the SJN, and categorically stated he was not the initiator of Adams’ name calling.
The apology is significant due to the fact that Boucher is the first white ex-Protea to acknowledge his role in not facilitating an inclusive environment within the national team, and considering the deafening silence of others, it needs to be acknowledged.
Langer has no such race problems with Australia’s sole batsman of Asian heritage Usman Khawaja coming out in support of his former coach this week, saying that Langer will feel like the current players are “stabbing him in the back”.
The similarities, however, remain linked with Boucher’s assistant Enoch Nkwe spectacularly resigning a few days ago due to “concerns about the functioning and culture of the team environment”.
Nkwe may not have the playing credentials, only enjoying a middling career as a seam bowling all-rounder with the Lions, but he is known to be a good man-manager, strict on discipline, structure orientated and approachable to his players. Basically, the epitome of the modern coach and team manager.
At this stage both Cricket SA and its counterpart Cricket Australia are backing their respective horses, with Boucher on a plane to Sri Lanka and Langer tasked with retaining the Ashes at home in the summer, but the lights are flashing in luminous red that “old school” may not be necessarily be the best school.