Hey, how about a Domingo shout-out?

2017-01-17 10:04
Russell Domingo (Gallo Images)

Cape Town – The coach would like to talk to you. He would like to talk to you now.

That was the gist of the message I received in the SuperSport Park press-box from Cricket South Africa media personnel, minutes ahead of my first significant, very unscheduled one-on-one encounter with national coach Russell Domingo some three years back.

I was escorted through big iron gates behind the main stand that opened grindingly, into the midst of a rather soulless assortment of mostly deserted tables and chairs in a restricted-access area where Domingo was keenly waiting.

I remember feeling more bemused than intimidated: you somehow feel increasingly immune to intimidation as you get older and crustier in journalism.

 It also felt strangely like some sort of rewind to frostier moments in my hard-news reporting youth: like the time during the 1980s troubles that I was roughly grabbed by the collar by notorious, hard-core riot policeman Major Dolf Odendaal and yanked off, our car led by a rumbling Casspir, to Elsies River police station before eviction from the area during the state of emergency.

Or when I spent a day with three newspaper colleagues under the less than five-star hospitality of the then-SAP at Caledon Square following a press freedom picket (we were charged under the Illegal Gatherings Act, tried and later acquitted).

Then there was the occasion, following my desired transfer to sports-writing, when officials of the pre-unity WP Cricket Union took issue with something I had penned, and I was called into a meeting that featured all of the president, vice-president, chief of selectors and CEO on the other side of the table.

“Should I have brought my lawyer?” I inquired, with just a hint of cheek. “You might be needing him,” I recall that the late Kevin Commins inevitably retorted, gruffly.

This mini-flashpoint of a different kind, so many years later, was smack during that problematic first Test match – for the Proteas, anyway – against Australia at Centurion in February 2014.

The unpleasantly up-and-down pitch played right into the hands of Aussie thunderbolt Mitchell Johnson, not averse to steepling bombardment on just short of a length, and South Africa would eventually succumb by a gaping 281 runs; Johnson gleefully bagged 12/127 and the man-of-the-match mantle.

From a relatively early stage of that Test, few in the South African camp were particularly happy bunnies over this home surface, and Domingo, still a relatively infant head coach of the Proteas at the time, naturally counted among them.

But he was also on a war footing with Sport24, for various reasons – I will make due allowance for some confidentiality on that score, suffice to say that a good many of the perceived “sins” were not of my specific doing – and had opted to take it out on the chief writer.

So with the Test clearly going pear-shaped at a rate of knots too, yours truly was at the epicentre of what you might call a perfect little storm.

We managed to stay awkwardly civil, albeit that Domingo was notably blunt in his objections and for my part I was hardly going to make too many of what I felt were unnecessary concessions, or bite the hand that fed me (and fortunately still does).

The parting also remained relatively tense, although we did manage a handshake. I believed he was being over-sensitive, for the most part … though I also felt an almost immediate admiration for his quite animated honesty.

He could simply have just stewed indefinitely, after all. At least matters were right in the open.

Several months later, it is probably fair to say that Lerato Malekutu, media manager for the national team, shuddered slightly when I gingerly requested – yes, I guess you could say the first puff of a desired peace pipe – an interview with Domingo ahead of a tour or series.

To his credit, an “OK” came through after a short period of suspense and some delicate lead-up diplomacy.

This time, in the more pleasant ambience of a well-known plush hotel base for the Proteas in Sandton, Domingo was quite authentically at ease, helpful, articulate and conciliatory too as we stuck to orthodox cricket matters regarding the side and their aspirations.

He managed to get in how much more comfortable and relaxed he always was, really, when he was back among his fishing pals in the Eastern Cape, and thus largely out of the public gaze. Many in demanding office might find that not too hard to relate to.

The 42-year-old continues, in my opinion, to be just a notch too tetchy at times in press conferences; there is a sarcasm and a “red mist” element, perhaps, that makes it that bit more difficult for him to find widespread media (and occasionally by extension public?) affection.

Admittedly there is a fine line in making a judgement on his attitudes … take his reaction to Rilee Rossouw’s Kolpak defection a few days ago.

On the one hand, he was so refreshingly candid as his own, obvious disappointment oozed out -- over Rossouw’s very decision to quit the Proteas, and his take on the allegedly secretive, back-door way in which he did it.

I believed Domingo when he said Rossouw was being groomed for a more fulsome role (than just one-dayers) in the SA set-up, as he saw him as some sort of left-handed equivalent to AB de Villiers for pure ability and the thumping nature of his stroke-play.

But, and again this is just my contention, I thought he slightly overplayed his hand, slightly diluted the sympathy over his frustration, when he felt obliged to uncharitably mention – implying disrespect -- that Rossouw had left out the extra ‘l’ at the end of his first name in the message he apparently sent officials via his iPhone to reveal his decision.

There are probably worse crimes against humanity – just for trivial example, I have been surnamed Howick, Howard and even Hauptfleisch in correspondence pulled from the postbox or inbox – than for a cricketer, perhaps not put on this planet to be a special gift to linguistic academia, to omit an ‘l’ in a tail-end double letter.

All that said, I have raised the subject of “affection” for the very purpose that, right now, it is my belief Russell Craig Domingo deserves considerably more kudos than he seems to be getting from South African supporters and observers.

His charges have been little short of sublime in the last few months, one emphatic conquest following another across the formats, and the unity of purpose, ruthlessness and professionalism simply cannot be so apparent without significant input and effect from the head coach … can it?

This particular pool of Proteas players may even be the most closely-knit bunch since return from isolation in 1991.

Faf du Plessis, the captain throughout the golden run in both Tests and ODIs, is earning widespread, rightful plaudits … but those also only seem to indirectly bear out that Domingo is perhaps being unfairly overlooked.

The latter is an unashamed disciple of Gary Kirsten, having been his assistant anyway while Kirsten had the national post, and I can’t help wondering that if his name was Gary Kirsten you would hear far more words like “genius” or “inspirational” being bandied about reverently at present.

Kirsten’s big strength was to be a man-manager and facilitator, an ensurer of a harmonious and comfortable environment, far more than he was a tub-thumping, prescriptive or dictatorial coach.

Behind the scenes, and in as unassuming and unsung a style, it is entirely feasible that Domingo is determinedly pursuing a similar philosophy, infused with certain own hallmarks … now with some quite eye-opening returns, even as widespread adulation remains fairly elusive.

I have heard it said that he has a pleasing serenity and sincerity in his dealings with players that flies in the face, if so, of his occasional outbreaks of belligerence or sensitivity when faced by a battery of microphones and cameras.

He seems profoundly loyal to, and proud of, the group he presently coaches.

Could it be that he also labours under the drawback of being a coach “of colour”, with all the emotion-charged dynamics that come into play in that respect in our still polarised, fractious and sometimes over-suspicious, hard-to-please society?

Such detractors, and there are almost certainly plenty out there, may also foolishly overlook that Domingo has ridden out some pronounced “storms” for the Proteas in the results column – the notably forgettable 2015/16 season a case in point – and come out pretty stoically into fresh sunlight.

Test of character? I’d say you can safely tick that box.

When he is not being that fraction indignant or defensive-sounding in press briefings, Domingo is actually capable, too, of excellent moments of public candour and gratifyingly sound cricketing sense.

He gave an outstanding, long sit-down SuperSport interview shortly after the Proteas’ gut-wrenching return as losing semi-finalists from the 2015 World Cup, opening up about the disappointment and even some of the delicate flashpoints as best as he reasonably could, given the huge sensitivities at play.

There was a genuinely human side to it all that was greatly to his credit. (I still maintain, as stated at the time, that he may be the SA coach who has come closest yet to winning that elusive World Cup.)

After just the latest majestic 2017 win by the SA “machine” – the innings victory within three days over Sri Lanka at the Wanderers on Saturday to ensure a remorseless clean sweep of the Test series – Domingo sagely reminded in the post-game media wash-up that good times could be fleeting, memories short and sentiment quickly changeable.

“I could go tomorrow … nothing is certain,” he was reported as saying.

He was being exceedingly ungenerous to himself.

Given the impressive extent of the current Proteas roll, “tomorrow” would be absurdly inappropriate and unwarranted.

Is there anyone out there with tangible information to suggest anything but that he is growing in his position, parallel to his team?

Domingo isn’t perfect – who is? – but he may be infinitely better as South Africa’s coach than many people think or are prepared to believe.

I don’t think I will ever find him less than an interesting character … even if those big iron gates were to open noisily on me again some time.

And if the Proteas keep knocking over all comers with such relish and sparkle, who cares, ultimately, if his PR could do with some tweaking?

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

Read more on:    proteas  |  russell domingo  |  cricket

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