Cape Town - There are certain memories that simply don’t fade no matter how much time has passed by. It is so spectacular that it leaves an imprint that can never be erased.
For me it was way back in 1989 at the University of the Western Cape (UWC). I was just seven years old.
Back then UWC was the citadel of non-racial sport. It was the heartbeat of the South African Council of Sport (Sacos).
Newlands, in the leafy southern suburbs, was reserved for whites. UWC was home. And a floodlit cricket ground was a novelty.
I was at “Udubs” that evening to watch my late dad play in the “Battle of the Roses” for Primrose CC against the mighty Montrose CC. And if you knew anything about Western Province Cricket Board club cricket then you would by default despise “Monties”.
They were cricket’s original “freelancers” of the time. Some would prefer the term “mercenaries” for they were a group of hired guns that were put together with the coin of the Allie family that remunerated them handsomely for their skills.
Nazeem White, the late Jonny Kleinveldt – uncle of Rory Kleinveldt – Reggie February, Deon Kemp, Adnaan Meyer, Clinton Ravens, and of course their irrepressible captain Shukri Conrad.
Conrad led them with a swagger unseen in WPCB circles that dethroned the dynasty of Primrose CC, who boasted the likes of Saait Magiet, Faiek Davids, Seraj Gabriels, Fuad Benjamin, Cyril Martin, Faizel Ebrahim, Yusuf Adams and Grant Petersen.
And it was on that very evening that Conrad played an innings for the ages when he struck 163 in a limited- overs game. A century in a one-day match was almost unheard of back then, but to compile a score of such magnitude that included brute force, technical skill and innovation was simply set in the future.
That is Proteas’ new Test coach Conrad in a nutshell. A man before his time.
Conrad has been a controversial figure ever since his legendary father Dickie Conrad, who was arguably the most technically correct player of colour batter to ever take guard, represented the South African Board President’s XI with Barry Richards, Graeme Pollock and Vince van der Bijl against the Derrick Robbins XI at Newlands in 1975 and him having played Nuffield Week and been selected in the 1984 SA Schools XI alongside Daryll Cullinan and Gary Kirsten.
Conrad’s equally forthright attitude has not won him many admirers over the years, which arguably may have been a deterrent to his current employers Cricket SA placing their faith in him almost a decade ago already.
For all his admirable qualities Russell Domingo was seen as the “safe option” when Cricket South Africa appointed its first Proteas men’s team coach of colour back in 2013.
But even back then, few could argue that Conrad possessed one of the finest cricket brains around.
A maverick of sorts who predicted that T20 cricket would monopolise the game and that the entire mindshift had to happen. While at the helm of the Cape Cobras, which he transformed from a struggling franchise into perennial trophy winners, it was Conrad who signed Dane Vilas from Gauteng’s “B” side because he wanted a wicketkeeper who could hit sixes.
It did not matter that Vilas was not the most competent of glovemen. The game was evolving and he was always ahead of the curve. Vilas has since become a sought-after commodity in T20 leagues all around the world.
That is merely one example of Conrad’s foresight.
Equally, his management of black African players, in particular, is a transformation blueprint for all coaches in South Africa. It is based on honesty and trust that has often not been forthcoming.
Many may point to former WP captain Thami Tsolekile’s departure from Newlands as a stain on Conrad’s copybook. Instead, the reality was that Tsolekile had submerged into a comfort zone in Cape Town and was in desperate need of a change to revitalise his career. And that’s exactly what was conveyed to him, hence the move to Gauteng where Tsolekile enjoyed his most productive seasons.
Equally, the way in which Conrad managed former Cobras captain Omphile Ramela allowed the left-hander to express himself both on and off the field in a manner few other coaches could appreciate, and the results were forthcoming.
The management of players in the current era has become particularly poignant, but almost to the detriment of actual coaching and improving technical flaws.
Conrad, 55, is a past master of both. His work at Cricket SA’s National Academy and with the SA U19s recently proves that he is very much in touch with what the modern young player needs. Equally, he has the respect of the older generation.
South Africa’s men’s national team has lacked a clear identity in terms of the brand of cricket it wants to play. There has been plenty of talk about wanting to be aggressive, but none of the tools to actually execute it under pressure have been implemented.
Conrad will change that in the Test side. It won’t be “Bazball” – he’s clever enough not to brand it – but he will instil the confidence and freedom within his players to go forward instead of retreating when the heat is on.
The wait to coach his beloved country has been a long one for Conrad. He’s had to endure many highs and hardships along the way. And his family, headed by his wife Warda and children Ameera, Azraa and Saeed, have supported him every step of the way.
Conrad knows what it takes to win trophies, but also to be fired which links to one of his favourite quotes: “The only certainty in professional coaching is its expiry date. If I wanted job security I would have stayed a teacher!”
Conrad, a qualified educator, is a long way from his classroom in Mitchells Plain on the Cape Flats because his time has now finally arrived.