April 12, 2013

The coach who listens

Meet Geoffrey Toyana of the Lions, whose methods of achieving success aren't too different from those of the man in charge of the No. 1 Test side

Mark Boucher. Makhaya Ntini. Ashwell Prince. Adam Bacher. Boeta Dippenaar.

"Almost everyone I was with in the national academy went on to play Test cricket." That is not quite correct but it is how Geoffrey Toyana remembers it. He can even laugh about it - these days, a little more.

His first season as a franchise coach ended on Sunday with the Lions breaking a five-season trophy drought with victory in the domestic 20-over competition. They were joint holders of the one-day cup and got a second-place finish in the first-class competition, making Toyana's maiden season among the most successful since the franchise system was put in place. (Matthew Maynard won two trophies and had a fifth-place finish in his first season at the Titans).

It has also earned him national honours. Toyana will take a South African Emerging Squad to a quadrangular T20 tournament in Namibia later this month. It is not a position Toyana had imagined he would be in when he first decided he would embark on a career in cricket almost two decades ago.

As a young man, Toyana was led to the pitch by his father, Gus, but he was not immediately taken in by the 22 yards in front of him. Gus played with the Majola brothers in the Eastern Cape and cricket was in his blood. He enrolled Toyana in the Baker's Mini-Cricket programme, where Geoff remembered enjoying the free biscuits more than the games. Gus was disappointed that he did not show greater enthusiasm.

"I was 15 years old when I told my father that I was not going to play cricket anymore," Toyana said. "His response was that if I didn't want to play his sport, I could go and find my own place to live. He was joking obviously, but it showed how much he wanted me to play cricket."

And so the boy did. Toyana's journey began at the Soweto Cricket Club (SCC), where his talent was nurtured despite the struggle for equipment and good facilities. He quickly became one of their best players and was elevated to captain - a position he occupied for eight years. As one of the top club cricketers in the Gauteng province, he was on the radar of the higher-ups and was eventually hand-picked by Ali Bacher as one for the future.

Bacher organised for Toyana to be included on the MCC's ground staff programme in 1995. Toyana became friends with New Zealand opening batsman Matt Bell, alongside whom he played many times against county sides. "It was a fantastic learning experience. On match days at Lord's we used to sell scorecards, and we got bowl to the internationals in the nets. I learnt a lot and when I came back, I was offered my first contract."

Toyana played at Gauteng and went to the national academy the next year but did not always live up to his potential. When he found himself on the fringes, Ray Jennings came to his rescue and took him to Easterns, just as changes began to take place on the domestic scene. When the franchises formed, Toyana considered himself lucky to receive an offer from the Titans. He had been playing for almost a decade and he knew time was not on his side.

In 2007, 12 years after making his debut, the dreaded call came. "They told me it was over for me," he said. But Easterns asked him to return and play provincially (a tier below franchise cricket), and he accepted. The following year, they needed a coach and Toyana was offered a joint role as a player-coach.

He saw it as the right time to step off the field completely, took a Level 3 coaching course, and asked if he could take charge on a full-time basis. He turned out to be well-suited to the job and his stocks rose steadily. He was invited to tour as an assistant to the emerging side two years later and for last year's Under-19 World Cup.

Then came a call he had waited four years for. "Dave Nosworthy was on the line and he asked me, 'Do you want to come home?' I didn't even have to think about it."

Nosworthy was in charge of the Lions, the team made up of players from Toyana's old Gauteng and North-West, and he needed a second in command. The Lions envisioned grooming Toyana to take over after three seasons, but when Nosworthy resigned at the end of the 2011-12 period, they made history by fast-tracking Toyana. He was the first black African to become a franchise coach, a significant fact, because the Lions were regarded as the least transformed of all teams. In a way, that made his appointment look like a quota one, but the board and Toyana didn't let that suggestion provoke them.

At Soweto Cricket Club, they knew Toyana to be "always very analytical" but also a "very good listener". He was the man people spoke to when they needed an ear but not necessarily an advisor, and they trusted him to be a sounding board

"He played first-class cricket at a difficult time in our country, he showed promise as a coach and he was a local, so we decided to go for it," said Mohammed Moosajee, a Lions board member who is also the national team manager. "We knew it was a position he would develop into and that mistakes would be allowed."

In Toyana's first match in charge, the Lions lost by ten wickets and it seemed they would continue to languish near the lower half of the table as they had in the recent past. But they won the next week, against expectation. They set the Dolphins a mere 241 to chase and the conclusion seemed foregone on the third day at 149 for 4, but Chris Morris steamed in on the final morning, the Lions took 6 for 27, and for the first time in a long while, there was a sense of belief.

As the summer burned brighter, they roared louder. They sauntered through the first-class competition, finishing second behind Paul Adams' Cobras, dominated the one-day cup and reached the final, only for the fixture to be washed out twice. They also led the T20 table and were the first team to book a spot in the Champions League.

Their remarkable turnaround was put down to a change in attitude that Toyana encouraged. "He didn't go in with a headmaster's style. He just wanted everyone to enjoy themselves," Moosajee said.

Toyana's tactical ability had been well-honed through years of playing cricket, and so had his people skills. At SCC, they knew him to be "always very analytical", according to current chairman Gordon Templeton, but also a "very good listener". He was the man people spoke to when they needed an ear but not necessarily an advisor, and they trusted him to be a sounding board.

At Lions, he did a similar thing simply by making players feel comfortable. "I expect that by the time players get to franchise level, they know what to do most of the time. My job is just to serve them. Even though I am a coach, I am a person as well, and that's how I approached it," he said.

He paired some junior players with old hands, having Test opener Alviro Petersen watch over the prodigious talent that is Quinton de Kock, Neil McKenzie mentor Temba Bavuma, and Imran Tahir work with fellow legspinner Eddie Leie. "That way I knew they were in good hands," he said.

Those youngsters have been key to the Lions' success and showed the health of cricket in the province is not as poor as was once suspected. "I suppose we were a little surprised in the way he backed the youngsters and stuck with them. It was quite brave," Moosajee said. And it paid off.

Confidence ran high and support swelled. At the T20 final, among the 14,000 fans at the Wanderers (a significant number for a domestic match), were 100 former players and administrators of the SCC, where Toyana regularly offers to help out despite his franchise duties. "We are so proud of him," Templeton said.

To know people from his childhood were behind him left Toyana "humbled, because that is a very special place for me". The victory will have given them something equally special to celebrate with one of their own. But Toyana knows it will not always be this good.

"My biggest challenge is to keep the guys focused, to keep them coming back and performing again and again. At the start of the season we said that our goal is to be the best franchise in the country and to do that we have to win year after year," he said.

There is a bit of Gary Kirsten in that statement. South Africa's coach often says his aim is to make sure his team becomes (in limited-overs) and stays (in the Test arena) the best in the world and he wants his players to understand the processes that will help them do that.

"I can see a lot of Gary's methods in Geoff," Moosajee said. "He gets the players to take responsibility, which is important when you want to build a successful unit."

Praise of that magnitude is something Toyana may only have expected to receive after years on the job. Even though it has come now, he said he has a long way to go before he can step into Kirsten's shoes.

"I am not even thinking that far. I am still trying to learn how to control the emotions of being a franchise coach. Maybe in ten years' time I can think of things like that," Toyana said. If it happens, he would have something to compare with his national academy team-mates.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent