THERE is a strong feeling in the Proteas’ management group — and that includes the senior players — that a root cause of South Africa’s habit of messing up in ICC tournaments is their inability to make good decisions under pressure.
Gary Kirsten and his lieutenant, Paddy Upton, strongly (and absolutely correctly) believe that international players have far too much done for them on a day-to-day basis and that free, independent thinking therefore becomes alien.
Normally when a man doesn’t even carry his own passport or luggage on overseas trips, he is either royalty, a president, a rock star or an invalid. Or a cricketer.
The coaching duo believe an environment and culture developed around the national team in which "things" were expected to take care of themselves. The players were told what to do and when to do it. So how could they be expected to think clearly and make important decisions for themselves when they were under pressure?
The attempt now is to make them more responsible for themselves for more of the time. They don’t carry their own passports or luggage, but the cricketers are expected to make informed choices about almost every aspect of their day-to-day life as Protea cricketers, from diet to preparation, legacy to reputation.
This works perfectly for at least half a dozen of the nationally contracted players.
Men like Graeme Smith, Jacques Kallis, Hashim Amla, Robin Peterson, Alviro Petersen and Dale Steyn know who they are, how they work and where they are going. They are focus ed and require very little coaching, either as cricketers or executives, which they are in the business of sport.
AB de Villiers also fits right into that category. Most of the time.
But you need look no further than Smith and Amla to be reminded of how tricky and testing the job of one-day international captaincy can be. One was happy to be relieved of the job in 2011 and the other refused to take it for Wednesday and Friday’s games against New Zealand (despite being the nominated vice-captain.)
What did Smith and Amla do when they were told to climb a glacier in the Alps last June? Jump on it and start scrambling, or listen to the advice on offer from explorer Mike Horn?
And did Horn sit back and wait to be asked? No. The Proteas were his responsibility and he made certain they were as well prepared as he could make them.
AB de Villiers is as highly skilled an individual player as this country has ever produced.
He really is that good. And, wrong as it may sound to old-school individuals, special players do sometimes warrant special treatment. They always have and always will.
But special treatment is different to indulgence.
Perhaps because De Villiers’s honesty, integrity and likeability all match his ability to catch and hit a cricket ball, he is also credited with a surfeit of knowledge in matters about which he cannot possibly know best. Like captaining the side without keeping wicket and with the stated intention of "spending more time with the bowlers". Why didn’t anyone hear the alarm bells?
Six overs late — that was the result! And a ban for the next two games. What good has that done him or his one-day team?
Even if they didn’t see the danger before the game, did nobody see the problem while it was unravelling or see fit to intervene? Send a message — a strongly worded one!
De Villiers is not unreceptive to advice, but sometimes — just like in the movies — it needs to be administered with a slap.
There are some of the wisest cricketing heads in South Africa involved in the Proteas set-up, so we cannot doubt the integrity of their decisions or the process they use to reach them. But we can question the methods used to convey them to us.
Is De Villiers a wicketkeeper or not? He changed his mind about the job during the Test series in Australia but it was NOT his decision to stand down before the one-day series.
He gave that impression because he said he was "excited", but that’s just him being a good team man. Instead, it was Kirsten’s initiative towards his search for depth and back-up in every position.
Oh — and the guys from the Lions look like they were right about Quinton de Kock’s progress as a wicketkeeper.
A little way to go yet.