What's next for Kirsten and Co?
This time a year ago there was much discussion about whether Gary Kirsten would accept the Proteas coaching job or not. The issue really was whether he wanted it or not as he was the most obvious candidate being a South Africa cricket legend himself and having just won the Cricket World Cup with India who were his first international team assignment as coach. Many went as far as to say he just had to name his price...close but not quite.
The impressive thing about what had happened in Kirsten’s tenure with India was how he had taken a team with star players and made them play together as a team and end up as the number one test match team as well as conquering the world in the Cricket World Cup. Of course, timing and “right place right time” comes into it but there is no question that his methods were different to what had been done before.
A season has passed with him as the main man in the Proteas set-up and the team has been pretty successful, which is not a change from times past. The question is whether there has been a marked and noticeable difference because of his arrival? Quite obviously this is difficult to gauge from the outside, however there are some things that happened in the season that many may have taken note of.
The first and most significant is how he (he takes the credit because if he was against it, the selectors may not have gone that way) was for the idea of picking Vernon Philander in the first test match of the season against the Australians. The results of that decision are not my point, despite how overwhelmingly successful and pleasing they have been. It is the fact that the more difficult decision of changing a decent formula was taken to try and improve.
There would have been no complaints from any quarters were Lonwabo Tsotsobe picked as he had done credibly the season before and was the man in possession. In fact, in the various commentary boxes and in the press area, there were murmurs of “let’s hope he knows what he’s doing” as most would not have gone that route.
There was the forging of new relationships between coach and captains, which seemed to go very smoothly because of the respect that Kirsten commands in the change room. Most significant for me with the captaincy issue was how clear it was that Kirsten’s role in the development of AB de Villiers would be huge. While De Villiers’s confidence as a player is high most times, as a captain he is trying to develop it and probably will with experience, but he needs guidance. It helps that he has quite good tools to work with and a good man at his side in Kirsten.
In the test match arena, there is not much wrong with the South Africa team so there is no need to tamper much with it. The only issue is getting rid of the Durban hoodoo and being more consistent at home. The next level for the Proteas is dominating all teams as they have shown in the last few years that there is nowhere in the world that they cannot win. The tendency to go from a huge victory to a huge loss, which seems to come out of nowhere, is all too familiar though and perhaps Kirsten can get that sorted...not a case of flicking a switch though. Perhaps it is; who knows?
JP Duminy, Faf du Plessis and Colin Ingram were some younger batsmen asked to assume different and rather important roles at various times in limited overs games during the season with big-name players such as Jacques Kallis and Hashim Amla rested. The reasons given for going that route was to ensure there is not an over-reliance on particular players. In the bowling department the same was done with Dale Steyn given a rest now and again and youngsters like Marchant De Lange asked to fill the void. It seemed to work in building the depth in quality and experience of the team.
All in all one would say the season was successful in moving the team forward despite a few hiccups here and there; a big tick in that box. The season ahead, however, will show just how far forward the side has gone and whether the Proteas are able to take that next step.
While on paper it looks set to be a case of South Africa ascending to the top of just about all the rankings, we know too well that the game is not played on paper and there are no guarantees in sport. There is the little matter of trying to get to the number one test ranking by dethroning England on their turf, which will be very difficult as they are a superb side and then trying to stay there by winning in Australia not long after that. They have done it before, but will they do it again?
In between these tests there are limited overs contests to deal with and of greatest significance will be the World T20, which South Africa will want to win.
The test just keeps getting tougher no matter how well the team does. It will be a longer season because of the winter assignments and thus tougher for Kirsten and his men. This is the season in which he will be truly tested as he has a bit of time to mould his squad.
Will it be another tick or a cross in that box at the end of the season?