Adrian Birrell named South Africa assistant coach
Russell Domingo marked the start of his tenure as South Africa's head coach by unveiling the support staff ahead of the tour to Sri Lanka. Domingo chose to maintain as much of the status quo as possible, retaining Allan Donald as bowling coach and Paddy Upton as performance consultant, but added his own touches in naming Adrian Birrell his assistant and Claude Henderson as the spin-bowling consultant.
Upton and Henderson's contracts allow for 100 days of duty a year. Upton's is exclusively for the national side while Henderson's will be spread between the senior team, the A outfit and the high-performance centre. A successor for the conditioning coach, Rob Walter, has not been found yet but Greg King, the conditioning coach at the High Performance Centre, will travel to Sri Lanka with the team till the recruitment process is underway. All the appointees have been signed on until the 2015 World Cup.
There was no confirmation of Gary Kirsten's future involvement with the South African side, although Domingo indicated he would like to make use of his predecessor. "Informal discussions have taken place for Gary to join us on a consultancy basis," Domingo said. "We haven't gone through all the details but it could be for about 30 to 50 days a year. I would be a fool not to utilise him. He has a great understanding of the players and of the South African culture."
While Kirsten has offered to be on-hand, Domingo's days have officially begun with the message that things will change, but only a little. Like Kirsten, Domingo likes to keep things in the family, so to speak, and has surrounded himself with people he knows well and trusts.
Just as Kirsten asked Domingo to be his assistant because he had worked with him in the past at domestic level - Domingo actually gave Kirsten his first coaching job, when he asked him to consult at the Warriors franchise - Domingo brought Birrell on board because of their past relationship.
"It's ultimately about appointing someone who I feel comfortable with," Domingo said. "It's a massively important relationship between coach and assistant. As an assistant coach myself, I maybe thought it wasn't so important but when you are the head coach, you realise how important it is."
Domingo and Birrell were enjoying a coffee at their local golf club two days before Gary Kirsten's decision not to renew his contract was made public. Domingo was one of the few people who was aware of Kirsten's impending exit and what it would mean for him. He casually asked Birrell, "If I become South Africa's head coach, will you be my assistant."
Thinking it was a hypothetical situation Birrell did not hesitate to answer in the affirmative. "Two days later, I heard Gary had resigned and two days after that, that Russell was going to Jo'burg to be unveiled as head coach. That's when I realised what I had agreed to," Birrell told ESPNCricinfo. "This is a massive honour for me and a very proud moment for me and my family."
Like Domingo, Birrell is not a big name. Unlike Domingo, he played a fair amount of first-class cricket: 45 games for Eastern Province without any major success. He had to compete with the likes of Kepler Wessels, Kenny McEwan and Rod McCurdy and understood he had to "work hard on my game." Birrell turned to coaching when he realised playing was not a viable career option and climbed the ladder one rung at a time. In his early days, he coached Domingo, who was 14 at the time, and later moved on to the provincial side in a similar fashion to the way Domingo grew into the coaching role. "Russell and I have trod on a similar path. We've done all the hard yards," Birrell said.
Like Domingo, Birrell has obtained all the coaching qualifications available in South Africa. He has also done the courses in England and was even an ECB level-four assessor recently. He coached the England under-19 side and was most recently in charge of the Eastern Province development programme. His most well-known role was a stint with Ireland, a position taken on when his wife was a partner at auditing company Deloitte. Birrell was in charge when Ireland qualified for the 2007 World Cup and famously knocked Pakistan out of the tournament.
Although being in charge of an Associate country is vastly different to the challenges a Test team presents, but Birrell can see at least one parallel. "Ireland was a challenge as I needed to create history. They didn't have history of ever getting into a World Cup and we did that," he said. "The challenge for us here is to do that again to create history by winning a World Cup. I see it as a massive opportunity to achieve something special."
So does Domingo, Donald and everyone else who forms part of South Africa's new team of backroom staff. Maintaining their Test stature even is one half of their challenge. Winning an ICC trophy is the other half.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent