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South Africa are a team in transition, and their coach has his plate full managing the rebuilding process
July 19, 2013
Features : 'Sri Lanka is a hell of a tough place to tour' - Domingo
Series/Tournaments: South Africa tour of Sri Lanka
Teams: South Africa
A Rwandan proverb asks a question Russell Domingo and his new management will have to answer over the next two years: "If you're building a house and a nail breaks, do you stop building or do you change the nail?"
The answer seems obvious. But what if the window panes, the floorboards, some of the doors, and even a wall or two are no longer usable? Maybe then you have to stop building, reassess, get a different supplier and start again.
At the moment Domingo is attempting to rebuild South Africa's limited-overs squads using the resources available to him, while finding ways to fix or replace the broken nails.
To start, he will need some perspective, which has not been easy to get in the aftermath of South Africa's semi-final exit from the Champions Trophy. Their defeat to England stung because it reopened wounds that had barely healed.
While it exposed their biggest weakness - the inability to perform under pressure - it did not dump the team to the bottom of the pile or turn them into inadequate has-beens. They are ranked No. 4 on the ODI list and No. 6 in T20, which is fair considering their focus has largely been on Tests over the last two years.
Adjusting priorities so that he is not as single-mindedly looking at the five-day format as Gary Kirsten was will be Domingo's first job, and the fixture list has given him no choice but to do so quickly. Over the next eight months South Africa play eight Tests and they are all tough assignments. They face Pakistan away and India and Australia at home. They also play 17 ODIs and ten T20s before the World Twenty20 in Bangladesh, and many more ODIs will no doubt be organised ahead of the 2015 World Cup.
Winning one or both of those tournaments could define Domingo's days in charge, and the administrators have made sure he will have enough time with both teams to not have any excuses about lack of preparation.
That is not the only area they need to assist him in, though. The performance of a national team is a reflection of what is taking place at lower levels, and a glance reveals a few things to worry about. Boeta Dippenaar is one of the people who believes the limited-overs squads' current problems have their roots in South Africa's domestic game.
He identified the amateur one-day competition, the semi-professional level below the franchise system, as a source of major concern. "If you look at that competition, the one-day games are always played after a three-day day game on the same pitch, which means you're not getting the best surface," he said. "The scores will be lower, so you get bowlers with false perceptions of how good they are, and batsmen that don't know how to chase down 300, or bat 50 overs, and when to take calculated risks."
The average length of a first innings in the 50-over amateur competition over the 2012-13 season was 45.06. Previously the games were 40-over affairs, and although the format now mirrors international cricket, that statistic indicates the players have not made the transition to a longer game fully yet. The average first-innings score was only 201.
Dippenaar is not the only one who subscribes to the theory that the pitches are to blame. Rob Walter, who spent several years as fitness and fielding coach of the South African team, and has taken over as head coach of the Titans, agrees that domestic surfaces are not often of the same standard as international ones.
"There is a distinct difference in terms of preparation of facilities," he said. "One-day pitches around the world are so good - there is no lateral movement and very little turn, but locally sometimes the guys can end up playing on sub-par pitches, and that affects the game."
It eventually affects the development of players' skill sets, and the quality of personnel being produced for the national team. "If you look at the current South African attack, sometimes they lack something when there is not a lot in the pitch," Dippenaar said. "That's because in some of our domestic competitions we produce pitches where as long as you put the ball somewhere in the right area, you can take wickets." Although outright pace, like Dale Steyn or Chris Morris offer, always has a role to play, the subtleties that bowlers like Lonwabo Tsotsobe, Rory Kleinveldt and Ryan McLaren rely on are not being honed as a result of conditions in the domestic game.
Walter can see the same happening with batsmen. "If we have too many situations where teams are three or four down early, we're not getting to the phase of the game where you need to improve your skills," he said. "That's at the back end of the innings, and that's what helps give guys a very real understanding of what is required at international level."
On tricky pitches, top-order batsmen don't have enough time at the crease, leaving middle orders exposed too early - an issue that has affected the South African team.
Dippenaar would like to see a "national cricket strategy" and a window created for the amateur domestic one-day game that will see it being played independently of the three-day competition. Financial considerations such as travel costs are among the speed bumps on the road to achieving that.
What CSA has done is make changes to the level above: the franchise one-day competition. This summer will open with the one-day competition in October-November, which will mean pitches different from the late-season ones usually used for the tournament. The change in the schedule was prompted by the requirements of the national team, which opens its home campaign with seven ODIs against India.
The board has also planned the domestic T20 tournament for January and early February, with the World Twenty20 in mind. An added benefit is that the national players will be available for the bulk of this tournament as well.
This solution only goes one level deep but it could still have an impact higher up, even on players who are already part of the national set-up. In fact, they are probably the ones who need the most work because they have already been identified as torchbearers for the limited-overs cause.
Domingo believes the squad he has at his disposal now is "the best available group of players that we can choose from". When Steyn recovers from the niggles he suffered during the Champions Trophy, he will be added to that list.
Even with that addition, the outfit is obviously lacking in seniority. Although Graeme Smith was often criticised for lack of one-day form, the difference he made was massive, and the longest he went without a half-century was 13 innings in 2004-05. Smith captained the team for eight years and was one of its constants.
In his absence, South Africa have failed to find a stable opening pair, with no one ready to partner Hashim Amla full-time. Without certainty in the top two, and minus the rock that is Jacques Kallis at No. 3, the rest of the order is always on the cusp of fragility. "We saw in the Champions Trophy that Hashim Amla and AB de Villiers felt the pressure of not having anyone to turn to other than themselves," Dippenaar said.
Early indications from Domingo's strategic think tank are that he will do away with the concept of a floating batting line-up. That will ensure role definition is clearer. South Africans teams have shown in the past that they perform better when given obvious direction.
An understanding of how his players operate is Domingo's strength because he has been coaching within the structures for a decade and a half. However, finding a reliable bowler and settling on a top order are pressing concerns. Moulding the mindset of the limited-overs squads is necessary.
Having been scarred by the manner in which they have been knocked out of previous ICC events, pressure continues to cripple South Africa in must-win situations. There is no easy fix for that but Dippenaar hopes Domingo will institute a long-term plan to help change the team's psyche.
"We tend to bring in help in that department just before a World Cup, and when there is a crisis, and we think if someone comes and waves a wand, everything will change," he said. "That does not work. We should have someone available all of the time so those who want to make use of it can." If that nail too is replaced, the house could end up standing pretty soon.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondentFeeds: Firdose Moonda
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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