The clock is ticking... Mark Boucher’s head is on the block
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CAPE TOWN - South Africa’s last outstanding series win was against Australia in 2018. Afterwards, Morne Morkel and AB de Villiers announced they were retiring from international cricket.
The Proteas lost a Test series at home to Sri Lanka the following year, then had the worst World Cup in its history and after that, JP Duminy, Hashim Amla and Dale Steyn retired.
Then came the administrative chaos. Former chief executive Thabang Moroe tried covering up his incompetence by putting in place a structure around the national men’s team that mirrors a football set-up – a manager at the top of the pyramid, with a bunch of coaches answering to him. Enoch Nkwe was put in that position in an acting capacity for South Africa’s tour to India. Nkwe was answerable to an acting Director of Cricket, Corrie van Zyl. Van Zyl had to answer to Moroe.
What’s all that got to do with Mark Boucher? Well, when all that fell apart, and CSA’s administration imploded, and Moroe was suspended after he’d suspended Van Zyl, and Graeme Smith was appointed as acting Director of Cricket, it was what Boucher inherited as the new Proteas head coach.
South African cricket was in a state of utter chaos, with England about to touch down in the country.
Since then Vernon Philander and then Faf du Plessis retired too. In total, 592 Test caps’ worth of experience disappeared in two years.
So now, almost 16 months later, Boucher is under enormous pressure. The Proteas have gone nowhere as a team – except downwards. But it isn’t unfortunately as simple as saying it’s Boucher’s fault. That’s too easy. And nothing in South African cricket is easy. Winning a series isn’t easy, winning a World Cup isn’t easy and voting for a new administrative structure isn’t easy.
So in assessing Boucher’s period as head coach, that broader context is very important.
Boucher's overall record
The numbers aren't good – in fact, they’re dreadful. Out of 11 series across all three formats, Boucher’s teams have won only three times. The Proteas haven’t won a T20 series under Boucher’s watch, losing all five series’ in the shortest format, a very concerning statistic with just five months to go before the T20 World Cup. Five players made debuts in Boucher’s first series as head coach – the four Tests against England. In the second T20 against Pakistan this year, eight players were handed their first caps. Injuries, the IPL, form and experimenting, haven’t helped Boucher in terms of getting some consistency going.
Quinton De Kock was made limited overs captain initially for the series’ against England in early 2020. Then he was made Test captain. That was a mistake and one Boucher can definitely be blamed for. De Kock was never suited to carrying all that responsibility and it wore him down, particularly given that it was all taking place in ‘bio bubbles,’ which De Kock publicly acknowledged he struggled adjusting to. At least the appointments of Temba Bavuma as limited overs captain and Dean Elgar for the Test team provides some clarity and vision. It didn’t help the team’s or Bavuma’s progress, that injury prevented his involvement in the T20s against Pakistan recently.
Proteas Style Tests
South Africa needs to sort out its batting urgently. The batting collapses are a habit – the last one saw them lose seven wickets for 33 runs in 11.4 overs against Pakistan in Rawalpindi to lose that series. It’s not just something that happens in the sub-continent either, there are plenty of examples of it right here in SA as well. Boucher wants Jacques Kallis back as batting coach, but CSA’s financial limitations prevent that from happening. It will have to be internally resolved with help from domestic coaches and ‘batting lead’ Neil McKenzie.
The only format in which the Proteas have a winning record under Boucher, but it's still too early to tell how good a One-Day side the team is, especially since Bavuma has only led it in three matches. Certainly in terms of batting there is plenty of ability and explosiveness, but with the ball, there is too much inconsistency. The seam bowling all-rounder spot is a genuine problem as is the team’s fielding.
So the Proteas are locked into a new style, which from a batting perspective actually worked well against Pakistan. The batsmen showed greater intent. The key will be how that style of batting will work in the sub-continent, where the World Cup will be played later this year.
Getting the right balance to the starting team is vital. Boucher and the selectors are still experimenting – although the last game against Pakistan, with just four frontline batsmen starting is probably pushing the envelope a little too much. South Africa needs more than five bowling options in the starting team, making the seam bowling all-rounder berth crucial – again. The fielding is poor.
Players - Who's progressed
More to do with him than Boucher, he’s taken ownership of his batting and last season, across formats, he was the country’s best batsman.
Graeme Smith made an interesting point about Bavuma, saying that in the change-room, despite the team struggling, Bavuma really stepped to the fore. It’s one of the reasons he was handed the captaincy. He needs to elevate his batting, but perhaps the responsibility of leadership will assist – it did at domestic level for the Lions.
Rassie van der Dussen
Outstanding contributor in all three formats, and while only into his third year as an international, very much a senior player in that side.
Is it just a consequence of Boucher, or has his career been in steady decline even before that? Phehlukwayo has played nearly 100 international matches. He’s no rookie. But he’s not as good a player now as he was when he started his international career five years ago.
Battled with Covid during the season, and it may have had a bigger impact on his game than even he believes.
Captained the team more than he would have anticipated. He was inconsistent with the bat, and some of his leadership against Pakistan was poor.
Faf du Plessis
His Test career was on the decline for two years and his retirement in that format was understandable. Hopefully he can find some form in the IPL
Why the West Indies tour will be absolutely critical for Boucher's future.
All the big name players will be back from the IPL. As will Bavuma, and who knows maybe AB de Villiers. That tour – with two Tests and five T20 Internationals – will be critical and it will be a gauge for Boucher’s future as coach.
As he said, the Proteas need to start winning regularly, to build the players’ confidence, but his too.
Lose in the Caribbean – of course if the tour happens – and calls for Boucher’s removal may become too loud for his bosses at CSA to ignore much longer.