October 21, 2010

Who after Corrie?

South Africa's current coach will be moving on after the World Cup. Who's it going to be to pilot them against Australia and Sri Lanka next year?

If you can't remember much about Corrie van Zyl's international playing career, don't fuss. You probably blinked and missed it.

He had one sweaty day at Sabina Park, and one sweaty day at Queen's Park Oval. And that was it: two one-dayers in which he sweated much for no reward. All told, van Zyl bowled 108 balls, conceded 93 runs, and had nary a wicket to show for it. His career spanned less than a week in which South Africa's bubble, inflated just weeks before, when they reached the semi-finals of the 1992 World Cup, was reduced to a glob of spent chewing gum by a West Indian team raging hard against the dying of the light. van Zyl escaped the third hiding of a one-day series that Wisden sniffed at as, ahem, "completely uncompetitive". Then Meyrick Pringle's extravagant swing was preferred for the Barbados Test, and van Zyl was done and dusted.

The view from here is that saying Cornelius Johannes Petrus Gerthardus van Zyl's full name is a more rewarding exercise than recapping his time at the top. Having laboured under the radar - thanks to apartheid - in his pomp, he played his two ODIs at 30 and retired from provincial cricket three years later in 1995. Thanks for coming.

So far, then, van Zyl's story reads like the death of a mediocre salesman. At least it does when observed from the outside in. From the inside, van Zyl looms large over the flat Free State landscape he emerged from to take 349 wickets in 104 first-class matches. Not many fast bowlers would survive, never mind prosper, in the shadow of Allan Donald. van Zyl did just that in the Free State attacks of the 1980s and early 90s, and turned himself into a respected allrounder, even as Donald thrashed about the popping crease like a greyhound in a mudhole. He was also a successful captain, and he followed that by reeling off six major domestic titles as a coach.

Which brings us, not before time, to the point. For those who prefer their coaches to have had a firm grip on their limitations when they were players, van Zyl was perfect tracksuit material. Not for him the flights of flash and fancy with which Bob Woolmer dazzled all and sundry, nor Eric Simons' unsure accountant's touch, nor the Apocalypse Now atmosphere that swirled about Ray Jennings' dressing room, nor Mickey Arthur's endless ebullience. Instead, van Zyl has remained true to his uncomplicated, uncompromising self.

So there should be no surprise that he has decided to step out of the breach. This international lark is all very well, but he has a real job to go back to at South Africa's High Performance Centre. After next year's World Cup, that's exactly what he'll do.

Under van Zyl, South Africa have shared a Test series in India and won another in the Caribbean. They've lost a one-day rubber in India, beat Zimbabwe at home, and crashed and burned at the World Twenty20. His record shines a little brighter when it's lumped together as played 24, won 17, drawn one and lost six.

Not for van Zyl the flights of flash and fancy with which Bob Woolmer dazzled all and sundry, nor Eric Simons' unsure accountant's touch, nor the Apocalypse Now atmosphere that swirled about Ray Jennings' dressing room, nor Mickey Arthur's endless ebullience

But beyond the naked numbers, van Zyl has shown the clear-eyed courage of a cricketing Clint Eastwood that some of his predecessors seem to have lacked. Players who seemed as immovable as Table Mountain have been dropped, and van Zyl hasn't hidden from explaining why. Andrew Hudson's recent appointment as South Africa's convenor of selectors is part of the reason for the wind of change that has blown exciting young players like Colin Ingram and David Miller onto the scene, but that couldn't have happened without van Zyl's support and assistance. Could it be that he understands the rarely respected truth that players - even special ones like Mark Boucher and Herschelle Gibbs - are simply players, nothing more?

Whether van Zyl will come under pressure to stay on with the Proteas depends on how they fare at the World Cup. Should they win, he might be told he has no choice but to reconsider his decision to retreat to his ivory tower. van Zyl is strong enough to resist such manipulation, but he is also allowed to change his mind. However, assuming South Africa don't buck any trends in the subcontinent next year, they will be in the market for a coach.

Gary Kirsten's name tends to come up when South Africans discuss who they would prefer to coach their national team. But his star continues to rise at the BCCI, and if India prevail at the World Cup, South Africa have about as much chance of snatching Kirsten as Sachin Tendulkar has of not being recognised in downtown Mumbai.

Graham Ford, currently with the Dolphins, has in the past three years turned down India, been linked to the New Zealand job, and taken himself off the shortlist to coach England. Is he set to have another go at the position he was fired from on the same day that Hansie Cronje died?

"I haven't given it a thought," Ford told ESPNcricinfo. "I'm thoroughly enjoying getting stuck in with the Dolphins, and my circumstances currently wouldn't suit a job that involved a lot of travelling." For all that, Ford declined to rule himself out any more firmly than that. A return to the fray by him would be welcomed in many quarters.

Of the other head coaches in South Africa's franchise system, only Richard Pybus of the Cobras has held the reins of an international team, in two stints with Pakistan. He is known for taking a creative approach to the mental aspects of extracting the best from his players. How that might serve him in a team that prefers to get things done on instinct rather than by thinking too hard is, at this stage, moot.

Why Vinnie Barnes is not mentioned in dispatches on South Africa's coaching situation is equally unclear. He has been the bowling coach since the tour to England in 2003, and no one in the current management team should have a more accurate idea of the side's strengths and weaknesses or know the players better.

South Africa need a coach who can push them past their old insecurities, who can make them think more deeply about what they're about, who can get them to get over themselves and play their best cricket consistently and to play their very best cricket when the pressure is on.

The new man's first assignments will be home series against Australia and Sri Lanka. Whatever their ranking, the Aussies will always be South Africa's ancient enemy. It's in the blood and in the brain and in the brawn. And the last time the Proteas found themselves up against the Sri Lankans - four years ago - they came unstuck. In fact, South Africa last won a Test against the islanders in 2002.

The challenges, then, will come thick and fast for the newly minted coach. Whoever he is and whatever else he does, he shouldn't blink.

Telford Vice is a freelance cricket writer in South Africa