Johannesburg - Employing different captains for the three formats in international cricket is frowned upon in some parts of the world.
But you will hear no such dissent from Russell Domingo, this week given a CSA nod of ongoing approval to 2017 as Proteas cricket coach, who says dealing separately with Hashim Amla (Tests), AB de Villiers (ODIs) and Faf du Plessis (Twenty 20s) has been one of the most stimulating aspects of his tenure thus far.
In this first of a two-part interview with him conducted by Sport24 chief writer Rob Houwing at the CSA 2015 Awards here this week, Domingo also insists his charges are getting closer to major tournament silverware and that a comparison between the latest World Cup performance and several prior ones is “chalk and cheese”.
Do you feel your time has come now, in a sense, after what might be described as a “trial” period as national coach?
I’ve felt pretty comfortable for the last year and a bit, really. Obviously there have been some changes leadership-wise but I have engaged well with the three national captains. I do feel more like the team has become mine, and I have an influence over it. I’m really happy with where I am as a coach and where the team is as a group of players. Hopefully we can only continue and improve.
I remember you admitting upon appointment that it was going to be difficult going into a dressing room featuring some powerful and seriously established characters like Gary Kirsten (as player and coach), Graeme Smith and Jacques Kallis ... has the end of that era made you feel even more at home now?
Look, I was always comfortable working with people like Jacques, and had worked alongside Gary when he was head coach previously and then onwards when he continued worked with the side. He’s a great guy and I really enjoy his company and what he offers the team. I’ve never had hang-ups working with any of those particular guys. For sure it can be intimidating working in a dressing room where you’ve got some legends of the game: you wonder ‘what are you thinking, what are you saying?’ and so on. Do they buy in to what I am saying? I suppose not having them there (now) is a drawback for the team, as their performances and leadership have been immense, but it’s also positive because it allows other people to grow into the space left behind. So there are pros and cons to not having those legendary players around.
Do you feel you truly “have” the current dressing room? It was said a few times at the World Cup that the Proteas seemed a very bonded unit ...
We are a happy team, yes, and have been for a period of time. Everybody understands their roles and respects the environment and space. It’s not about me, the coach; the players are the most important people and if they are content and performing at their optimum that’s just a feather in our caps (behind the scenes). I’m there to support, advise, guide, offer options.
One of your predecessors, Eric Simons, told Sport24 recently he believed it would be quite difficult for the players to get quickly back on the bus again after the disappointing events at the World Cup ... what do you feel?
I think the Indian Premier League would have been a good place for several of the guys to get past that hangover. As the tournament went on, their competitive juices and energies gradually came back. I’m pretty confident that by the time we get together again in Bangladesh soon they will have got over it, moved on. It’s been a tough couple of months for both coaches and players, but what’s in the past stays there.
Did the thought strike you that maybe this latest one was the closest South Africa has ever come to winning the elusive World Cup?
Well, if someone had said to me you’ve got (to defend) 299 runs in 43 overs in the semi to get into the final, we would have taken that at the start! So many small things just didn’t go for us or yes, things we might have done a little differently. But it wasn’t meant to be. What was positive for me was that the last two major-event semis we’ve got to, if you include the last ICC World T20, we’ve played some really good cricket – in Dhaka Virat Kohli just played a really fine innings to beat us. In this last semi in Auckland we largely played a solid game of cricket too. If you compare it to our knockouts in the 2011 or 2007 World Cups, or even 2003 ... it’s chalk and cheese. We’re getting into the late knockout games and performing well in them; just not quite yet crossing the line. So it’s a work in progress and hopefully we’re not too far away from getting over that line. Look, if we had won all our group games and then quickly got blown out at the KO stage, people would have said ‘aagh, we screwed it up at the critical time (again)’, whereas if we lose one or two games earlier, as we did, and then play well in the knockout phase, it would be ‘oh well, they lost matches along the way so maybe they didn’t deserve to win the tournament anyway’. Remember Australia could easily have been knocked out by Pakistan (in their Adelaide quarter-final) had a catch been taken at fine leg, when Wahab Riaz bowled to Shane Watson ... those small margins either go for you, or against you.
But with Australia going on to win it fairly consummately, doesn’t that make them the trend-setters, the team that has moved to a different level in ODIs to everyone else in the world?
I don’t believe there’s much to choose between the top five sides in one-day cricket: South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, India, Sri Lanka, also Pakistan ... any (of those) on their day can beat anybody. I wouldn’t say the Aussies are miles ahead of everyone else, though they are the world champions, the No 1 side -- the ratings say that. They beat us in Australia but we beat them in Zimbabwe just a bit earlier. That tells you there’s not much between the sides. But they’re always competitive, always one of the sides to beat, and these tournaments tend to bring out the best in their players. Credit to them; they’re really good in these World Cup events.
Are you pleased to have Charl Langeveldt on board as new bowling coach?
Very happy. Look, Allan (Donald) has been a great servant for the last few years, and sometimes it is good to have some fresh ideas, fresh opinions introduced. Particularly in the Subcontinent where reverse swing is going to be so important. Charl can also offer a lot in our back-end bowling in one-day cricket. He’s got the pedigree as an international player. He’s a good bloke, and has connected very well with some of our bowlers, including the younger ones.
Three international captains: complicated, or beneficial?
I’ll be honest with you, at the start I was a bit sceptical, but it’s been wonderful. I think the key to the success has been the personality of the three captains. Faf, AB and Hashim are three really good people; they’re all different captains in their own way. In high-pressure situations, like AB has just been in at the World Cup, the last thing he wants to do is go straight into captaining a Test and T20 side as well. So the formula allows him that vital little bit of freedom to step back a bit. Hashim now takes on the mantle for some high-pressure Test series, then he too can step away and focus on his batting (alone) in one-day cricket. I think it has worked really well; a great decision by the selectors. It’s freshened up the system really well. You get a different voice in every format. I’ve enjoyed it; enjoyed the three different perspectives, and characters to work with. There are no egos at play; all three really respect each other and get on with the business, support, when the other is in charge.
How has being made national coach affected your personal life?
Not at all, actually. I lead a simple life: I try to steer away from controversies, and the limelight. I live a simple life in PE. My mates are my mates, and my fishing buddies don’t talk much cricket! I have other interests too, though cricket is my work and I love it. But that life outside the game keeps things in perspective for me. My kids occupy my life when I am at home. I’m just a normal guy, watching my son play U11 rugby and so on. I just happen to have a cricket job, and one I’m very privileged to be in.
*In part two tomorrow, Russell Domingo discusses the Test-laden programme ahead, and some of the recently-revealed new personnel across the Proteas squads