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April 7, 2014
When Russell Domingo succeeded Gary Kirsten as South Africa's head coach, he compared the expectations thrust on his shoulders to what David Moyes may have experienced when he took over from Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United. It turns out Domingo has more in common with Moyes than just the nature of their appointments.
In February, when United drew 2-2 with the then bottom-of-the-table club Fulham, Moyes had to meet the media to explain the team's performance. On Monday, after South Africa crashed out of a14th ICC event without making the final, Domingo had to front up to the fourth estate.
Both men defended their teams and their tactics by hitting out at critics. Moyes described his players as "terrific," despite the stalemate and half-insulted those who disagreed, saying they needed "to have a football brain to understand," United's approach.
Domingo claimed "there were a lot of positives," to be taken out of the World T20 showing, so he was "not displeased with the way we played." He added that the group as a whole "feel there is a lot of unfair criticism to what's happened."
While Moyes' popularity shrunk among the Old Trafford faithful, Domingo has been targeted by not only the fans, but even former pundits and players. He is nonetheless putting on a brave face.
"The opinions that matter to me are the opinions of the players. It is disappointing that guys who have been in this situation before are throwing darts," Domingo said. "I guess that's just the way it goes in South African sport. It's sad when that type of thing happens because some of those people have also been here before, they have also lost games and they have also made mistakes. Those opinions aren't the ones that are important to me."
Most notable among the critics is former national captain Kepler Wessels who wrote in his column on SuperSport.com that "as far as strategy is concerned, in the shortest format, the Proteas are some way behind the leading teams." Wessels took aim at the coaching staff saying "they refuse to accept that impact players, with either bat or ball, have to be put in positions consistently where they can influence the outcome of the match."
Wessels also suggested the current management should continue in the Test arena but a specialist limited-overs coaching team should take over to prepare the team for the fifty-over World Cup. "It may be time for fresh ideas from a coaching group that embraces the modern T20 and 50-over format," Wessels wrote.
Daryll Cullinan on Match Point on these pages held a similar view but was not as generous in his assessment of Domingo or the captain Faf du Plessis. "The sooner SA Cricket realise that Russell Domingo will not take this team forward and that Faf de Plessis has a long way to go as captain, the better," Cullinan said. "You have to point fingers at their thinking in terms of how they think games can be won; everyone else has firm beliefs on it except those two."
Both Wessels and Cullinan were among the slew of outsiders who advocated the theory that AB de Villiers should bat higher up the order, preferably at No.3, so he could face the bulk of the bowling. Domingo batted de Villiers in a position where he could only walk to the wicket after 10 overs based on statistical evidence that de Villiers' average and strike rate is higher in the second half of the innings while he fails to make an impact in the first half. That is a principle Domingo is sticking to.
"AB has batted at 3 a few times and has had limited success. It's not the number he bats; it's the situation of the game when he comes in," Domingo explained. De Villiers has come in after 10 overs nine times in the 42 innings in which he has batted at No.3 or No.4 in T20s for South Africa and averages 43.5 with a strike rate of 169.48 compared to an average of 19.55 with a strike rate of 110.74 when he is in before the end of the 10th over, batting in the same positions. His highest score at the World T20, 69 against England, was also his only score over 30 and came when he batted in the second half of the innings.
"It's not just for South Africa, but for the Royal Challengers Bangalore as well that AB plays better where there is a good start. AB will be the first to admit that he is a better player when then game is set up for him. he is an impact player. Faf and JP were voted to be included in the ESPNcricinfo T20 team of the year," he said. "We have quality players. I would hate the whole team strategy to be around one player. The problem is that people want AB to face 120 balls and Dale to bowl 120 balls and that ain't gonna happen."
That Domingo mentioned Steyn in the same breath points to the other issue South Africa have faced. Steyn only opened the bowling once and was held back to strangle teams at the death, while JP Duminy and Albie Morkel shared the new ball on three occasions. While many feel using the scariest bowler first up is the best option, Domingo explained why he disagreed.
"The statistics will show the first two overs are the overs that go for the least runs, while overs four, five and six are targeted. We would rather have JP bowling in less pressured situations and then have Dale coming in later on."
Domingo also explained the decision to leave out the second specialist spinner, Aaron Phangiso in the semi-final on a surface which suited spin. "We were thinking JP and Imran would bowl eight overs and then Aaron, when would he bowl?," Domingo asked. "With three left-arm batsmen in the Indian top six and him being a left-arm spinner, it didn't seem a good option. It's also about who you are playing against."
Whether Phangiso would have been able to restrict India to under the 172 South Africa posted will always be the stuff of hindsight. So will whether South Africa could have done anything differently to finally claim a major title and Domingo can only see sense in dealing with certainties.
Having been in charge of South Africa's T20 side since December 2012, overseen series wins over Sri Lanka and Pakistan, taken over the ODI side and watched them beat Pakistan and India, he is sure that South Africa are improving in their limited-overs cricket even though they don't have a trophy to show for it.
"I went to one previous ICC event, the Champions Trophy in England and we were completely blown away. In this semi-final, we were in this game for 36 overs of the 40 overs. That in itself is progress," Domingo said, without denying there is room for improvement. "There are times when you will be outplayed so in terms of winning the game, there is no progress."
He had this to say to the doubters. "I think our limited-overs cricket has improved a lot. There's an upward trend. Maybe some people don't see it, maybe they don't want to see it, maybe they just have other issues." Whatever it is, Domingo insists he will "keep doing the job I have to do."
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondentFeeds: Firdose Moonda
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