SA's class of 2014 hits the right note
On the eve of the Under-19 World Cup final, Ray Jennings was an unhappy man. The South Africa coach had stormed off a training session because he felt his players had gotten complacent. Jennings was clear that he didn't come all the way to the UAE to settle for second place and that message had to be drilled into all his players. Jennings, always a hard taskmaster with every high-profile side he has managed, decided to get tough, with a "firm talk."
"Yesterday I really lashed into the side because I needed them to refocus," Jennings said. "I think there was a satisfaction factor because none of the players had made a semi or a final. I just sensed they were going through the motions. I called the side and told them about the satisfaction level and I turned away and said we have to practice and move on. The players got the fright of their lives."
On Saturday evening, Jennings was a relaxed man. Sitting outside the dressing room, he had deliberately detached himself from the celebrations. The country had just broken the hoodoo of not winning a world tournament since 1998 at the senior and junior level. For Jennings, who had seen his side lose the 2008 final to India, a monkey was off his back.
Given that South Africa hadn't dropped a single game all tournament coming into the final, Jennings knew that if his players took their eyes off the ball in the final, it could still prove fatal. South African teams have had to live with the dubious tag of 'chokers' ever since they were readmitted into international cricket and a defensive Jennings felt that his country didn't deserve to be rubberstamped with that tag.
"I've always found it very strange as the national coach that the market or the media has said the South African sides have choked. That to me is really pathetic," Jennings said bluntly. "Maybe Pakistan choked today or India choked in the tournament. The media needs to use the word in context of the situation. Now the monkey is off the back, we can go on and move on to next phase. Knowing SA and our players I believe our character in the national setup is not a choking character and we are fighters and we fight till the end. The choking tag has never sat well with me and the media just tries to latch on to our team."
The homework that the South Africans put in extended well beyond the nets. After Jennings cracked the whip, the players watched video clippings for hours at the hotel, assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the Pakistan players. Their in-depth analysis came to fruition as the bowlers sent Pakistan crashing to 131. Chasing a paltry target in conditions favouring the bowlers too required systematic planning. Jennings put out a white board near the pavilion where he had written out targets for every five overs and compared it to what was achieved. He knew that all it took was to match Pakistan's top two partnerships to get close to the score.
The fulcrum of South Africa's campaign, culminating in a mature knock in the final, was the captain Aiden Markram. The 2012 final witnessed captain's innings from Unmukt Chand and Will Bosisto and Markram continued that tradition. He ended the tournament as the third highest run-getter and the highest for South Africa. Markram's celebration was the polar opposite of Virat Kohli's over-the-top war cry in 2008. After the post-match presentation, Markram took a call on his mobile phone and sat in solitude on the outfield till he finished. He needed his alone time and wasn't dragged away.
Markram said the moment had yet to sink in. His partnership with Greg Oldfield, after they were 28 for 2, was the decisive one. He said he wasn't just batting against 11 Pakistanis, but plenty more in the partisan crowd. As Markram's career progresses, he will have to get used to playing in front of plenty more. Though the stands were far from full, this was an experience in itself for him.
"Till the last runs are scored, there is a potential problem around the corner," Markram said. "When you are 28 for 2, there are lots of thoughts that go through your head. The partnership with Greg Oldfield was a crucial one. His role today has been very under the radar and hasn't been praised, but I thought he batted really well and I am happy we built that partnership."
That South Africa were only chasing 132 was thanks to the efforts of Justin Dill and Corbin Bosch, the right-arm seamers who troubled the batsmen more for their accuracy rather than pace. In a 14-over spell between the two, they conceded 26 runs and took five wickets.
"When they came on (Dill and Bosch), they had a massive job to do and we would have liked to strike a bit more with the new ball, but it didn't go our way," Markram said. "They had a bit of pressure on their shoulders and I like the way they responded each time I threw them the ball. They were hungry and you could see the determination in them to break the partnership and try setup batsmen."
The manner in which Markram has led the team wasn't lost on Jennings, who had put his money on Markram shortly before the World Cup.
"I've always seen something special in him and he is one of the guys that I identified in the system from a talent point of view," Jennings said. "My eyes don't lie to me and it's unbelievable the way he has performed. In interviews with the media you guys must pick up the maturity. His style of play is very mature, in the change rooms he is really respectful to me, he has good parents and South Africa has got an unbelievable leader in him."
Markram's respect for his coach is mutual. "Ray is awesome at what he does and his knowledge for the game is massive," Markram said. "He can sort of tell you what's going to happen in the next 20 overs so, he prepares us and we can almost anticipate what's going to happen from there."
The players, including Markram, have acknowledged on record that the South African side is not one of superstars. They have no survivors from the previous World Cup, so everyone begins on a clean slate. Jennings feels the 2012 side he coached was the most talented he had worked with, but fell short on attitude. The Class of 2014, according to him, made up for its lack of talent with the right attitude.
The pre-match homework had paid off.
Kanishkaa Balachandran is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo