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After two decades of managing South African and other teams, Goolam Rajah has called time. He talks about the highs, the lows, the time he batted in the nets, and more
Interview by Firdose Moonda
December 6, 2011
There are some people cricket fans usually don't get to see - groundstaff, caterers, luggage attendants and team managers. But one of the most recognisable faces in world cricket for the past two decades falls into the last of those categories. Goolam Rajah has been part of South Africa's touring party since readmission in 1991. On November 21, 2011 he was in charge of the dressing room for the final time. In those 20 years Rajah has presided over 179 Tests, 444 ODIs and 40 Twenty20s. When Cricket South Africa presented him with a framed list of all the players he had taken under his wing, it totalled 107. That does not include franchise teams he has managed or his World XI days. ESPNcricinfo spoke to him about negotiating the early years, dealing with difficult players, and the lighter side of life on tour.
How did you become South Africa's team manager?
I was on the executive of [the non-white] South African cricket board before unity. When it became one board after unity, they needed administrators. Some of the officials decided I would manage the then-Transvaal team on the tour of the UK [in 1992]. At first it didn't appeal to me, but I had a great love of cricket and saw it as an opportunity, so I did it. Two weeks after I came back, India came on their first tour to South Africa and a President's XI - captained by Hansie Cronje - played against them. I managed the invitation team and a month later Ali [Bacher] said he'd like me to manage the one-day squad against New Zealand. I said, "Doc, I didn't intend making this a profession. I am already a pharmacist, I've got a reasonable practice and enjoy what I do." He said, "Fine, I will give you a week to think about it." And that week turned out to be 20 years.
What were the biggest challenges in the early years?
What was most difficult was to get people of different attitudes, different backgrounds and different cultures to come together. There was a tour once - it was Makhaya Ntini's first tour and Nantie Hayward's as well. We used to pair people for a week at a time. Makhaya and Hayward were both characters in their own right. Makhaya could not speak a word of Afrikaans and Hayward, at that time, could not speak a word of English, but I put them together. When the week was up, I went to Makhaya first and asked him if he was happy, and he was. Then I asked Nantie, and he also said he was happy. They stayed together the whole tour and somehow they started speaking a little bit.
That was a big challenge for me but I saw it as an opportunity to get the message through to the rest of the team - that we are now in the new South Africa; it doesn't matter what background, what culture, what colour, we have to move forward. For me, that was a very important step in the life of South African cricket. When we came back, we had won most of our games, but that was incidental. All the talk at the time was, "Did you guys get together?"
In my 20 years, I cannot report one racial incident, and that made me feel that we had arrived as one country.
How much have circumstances, players and attitudes changed in the last 20 years?
The [Dave] Richardsons, the [Brian] Macmillans, the [Andrew] Hudsons were different to the players of today, like [Mark] Boucher, [Jacques] Kallis, [David] Miller and [Colin] Ingram. Maybe it was easier to get a message over to the older folks. In the old days, I used to set wake-up calls for everybody. With cellphones, they started doing it themselves.
|"On the first tour of England, 1994, Dave Richardson ran out of toothpaste. I asked somebody for the nearest Tesco, so I could go and get some. In those days, as manager, you wore your blazer and tie wherever you went. The guy at the shop said to me, 'Do you always go to buy toothpaste dressed like this?'"|
Maybe I am wrong - and I like to think I am wrong - but the money aspect sometimes supersedes the enjoyment of the game. When unity took place, you played for nothing but your pride and the thought that you had won a match. Now we see cricketers who have given up Test cricket, and when you ask why, it's only because of the financial gains. I can see more cricketers, especially quick bowlers, giving up Test cricket. We have to accept that the IPL has brought it to the notice of players that they are worth more than what they sometimes get. I am a bit worried that out of the three formats of the game, we will lose one of them. I think it will be the one-day game - after South Africa win a World Cup!
You've seen all of South Africa's World Cup exits. Which one was the most difficult to swallow?
Ninety-nine. I saw some big men cry in the dressing room. It was very sad. If ever we came close to a winning a World Cup, that was it. That was the best overall team. Coming to the semi-final, tying the match and still being knocked out was terrible. And the team that won the World Cup, without being disrespectful, could have been knocked out three times before that.
Which places have been the most difficult and which the most enjoyable to tour?
When we first went to India in 1991, compared to when we go back now, India has taken a 360-degree turn for the good. The infrastructure is as good as anywhere in the world, same for the hotels, and their stadiums have been upgraded tremendously. Initially it was the toughest, but to their credit, things have changed dramatically for them.
The most enjoyable was Australia. It was very similar to South Africa in the infrastructure. If we were looking for a bowling machine in Sydney, we didn't have to get it from Perth, or take one ourselves, because every stadium had a bowling machine. If you said you want 12 net bowlers, you got 12 bowlers, and if you said you want one wicket out of the four to be a spinning wicket, you got it.
I also have a soft spot for England because I lived there for 10 years. I studied at Leicester and it has a special place in my heart. When it comes to travelling, it's the easiest. Once you land, you land. You don't get on another plane. You travel everywhere by bus. From my point of view, I don't have to check in huge bags all the time.
You hold the record of never having lost a piece of luggage, but there must have been something that got left behind on occasion, even if it wasn't by you?
Dave Richardson comes to mind. On the first tour of England, 1994, he ran out of toothpaste. I asked somebody for the nearest Tesco, so I could go and get some. In those days, as manager, you wore your blazer and tie wherever you went and the guy at the shop said to me, "Do you always go to buy toothpaste dressed like this?" I had to laugh when I told him, "No, not always."
Of course, there have been lots of times when people forget their cellphone in one city, and when we get to another city I have to get it sent to us. They would also forget bats in dressing rooms.
When those things happened, did you feel like you had become an adult babysitter or did you view it as a chance to pioneer new trends as a manager?
There were a lot of things that I did that have now become customary, and I did them because I wanted to. When I first got the job, I heard that some people were saying, "What experience has Goolam got and why is he going?" I had strong determination to prove that a person of colour can do well, given the opportunity. There were no textbooks to read, there was no one to talk to about it. For the most part, you were left on your own. So yes, initially I did do the extra bit.
When a batsman got out I would put his favourite drink where he sits. It didn't matter how many runs he made. In the nets, I would keep offering the bowlers something to drink. I used to bring bananas and jelly babies out at tea time. Today that is the norm. Those are things I will cherish and value, to know that I made a difference. If I had one regret, it's that I should have diarised important events. Fortunately, I can remember a lot of things.
How did you deal with difficult players, like ones who missed the bus?
Let me tell you a story. On the 1994 tour to England, after we had just got to London, we agreed that practice would be at nine the next morning at The Oval. One thing about South Africans is that we have a culture of being on time. So at nine I said to the driver, "Let's go". Hansie said to me, "Hang on, hang on, Fanie is not down yet." I could see Fanie in the lift, and Hansie could see him to,o because it was one of those hotels where the lift was made of glass. I said to Hansie, "It doesn't matter if that's Fanie or his uncle, we have to go," and we went. Fanie came to The Oval at his own cost, in a taxi, and apologised. We also told him that his meal allowance for the day would come to the team. It was childish, but the idea was to get people trained to be punctual and responsible for their actions, and he never did it again.
You can't treat all the players the same way, though, because then you are not reading the personalities. What was important was for me to adjust to the characters. I had to get into the minds of people, so when I was going to breakfast I would ask to join someone. They didn't realise it, but I was trying to get to know them better, so when they did the wrong thing, I would know what to do.
Being accommodating was a very important part of your job. How did you manage to fit everyone in?
You have to anticipate the likes and dislikes of certain people. Take Hashim Amla, for example. He has a very strong religious background. In the past we always had our meetings at six in the evenings the day before the match. When he came into the team, I changed it to 6:30pm because of the evening prayer, and Hashim was thrilled. Something like getting halal food is a very important issue at the moment. You have to be willing to do that.
What were the best of times and what was the worst?
It was actually on the same day - when we beat Australia in the 438 game. No South African can say they weren't overjoyed. But for me it was a sad day. My brother, who was 57, used to complain about stomach pain and I had sent him to a doctor earlier that week. The doctor phoned me and told me my brother had pancreatic cancer and he would likely live for only five or six months. Everyone was jumping for joy in the dressing room and although I didn't show it, deep down I was hurting.
|"When a batsman got out I would put his favourite drink where he sits. It didn't matter how many runs he made. In the nets, I would keep offering the bowlers something to drink. I used to bring bananas and jelly babies out at tea time. Today that is the norm"|
What was been your biggest achievement?
Managing the World XI gave me a lot of joy. For me, it signalled that I had graduated, within cricket. It wasn't very pleasurable that we lost every game to Australia. That wasn't enjoyable. We had 11 icons but we still lost.
Have you ever got into the nets with the team?
In Trinidad in 2005, we were playing a warm-up game at the University. The joke around the team at the time was that management always talks so much, so they wanted to see what we could do in the nets. I said I will go first and I padded up, but when I saw Dale Steyn running in, I said, "No, you don't qualify to do this." So Vincent Barnes said he would bowl at me. He was so quick - you mustn't forget that he was a very good player - and he let it fly past my ears. I asked him to pitch it up and when he did I was able to drive a few past him.
Tell us about one of the funnier things you have seen on tour?
In Adelaide during the 1993-94 tour, Allan Donald was bowling to Hansie in the nets and there was a local guy standing behind Hansie, chirping him all the time. For an hour, he went on. Allan asked me to call security to get rid of him but I thought there was a better way of dealing with it. I went up to the man and said, "Sir, it seems you know a lot about this game. Why don't you put the pads on and come and have a bat?" He couldn't believe it. He was so excited. We gave him pads, a bat, a helmet, everything. Allan and Fanie wanted to bounce him but Hansie told them to be careful and just make him a little scared. The first ball Allan banged short and this guy jumped up and it went past his head. He put everything down and said, "Okay guys, that was nice," and he left. There were a lot of people standing there. They all laughed at him and we never saw him again.
What advice will you give to your successor?
There is a relationship you have to build with players so they trust you. When people trust you, you get more mileage out of them, rather than making promises which you can't deliver on. If you've got a happy player, you will have a happy performer, and the whole team benefits from that.
For example, I know a few guys who don't like steak, so if we have a team dinner, I make sure they have chicken. Those are the things that make a difference.
What are your future plans?
I would have loved to carry on if there was an opportunity to do so, but I respect Cricket South Africa's policy that at the age of 65 everybody retires. I think I am still young enough to be involved in cricket. Age is just a number.
Two years ago I got a phone call from Adam Gilchrist late at night and he said he needed to speak to me urgently. He told me he had spoken to the Australian senior players to find out what they thought of me and said he had recommended me to the Deccan Chargers to manage the team during the tournament in South Africa. So maybe I will continue to have some involvement with them and the IPL and shorter tours. I could even go on some recce tours for CSA.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondentFeeds: Firdose Moonda
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