One of cricket's little known facts is that Russell Domingo, South Africa's new assistant coach, gave Gary Kirsten his first coaching position. It was 2006, two years after Kirsten had retired from international cricket and a year after Domingo had taken over as the head coach of the talented but struggling Warriors franchise.
The team lost the final three first-class matches of the 2005-06 season by an innings and some, and Domingo decided that his batsmen needed to learn from an expert. He called Kirsten, who had just started his own academy and asked him to spend 35 days with the squad through the season, occasionally accompany them to matches and conduct specialised sessions in a consultancy role. "He was a normal guy with no ego and no issues," Domingo told ESPNCricinfo. "I liked how he got stuck in and worked very hard, yet was so mild mannered."
In the five years since then, the Warriors have won two trophies, produced half a dozen players for the national side and have qualified for two successive Champions Leagues. Kirsten has coached India to the No. 1 spot in the Test rankings and a World Cup victory before being appointed South Africa coach. When Kirsten accepted the job, he also made a phone call and offered Domingo the job of being his assistant. The circle was complete.
On the international scene, Domingo is relatively unknown. A self-confessed "very average batsman", he played a little bit of B team cricket but soon realised that he would not make a career out of being a sportsman. "To be honest, I was never really good enough," Domingo said, without as much as a hint of a qualm about his admittance. He completed his degree in sports administration and marketing, and at the age of 25 was appointed a youth coach at Eastern Province.
That was the right career move, because Domingo has steadily risen up the ranks. He will turn 37 next month and in the 12 years that he has been a professional coach, he has been involved at every level. He started with age-group teams and went through all the stages from under-13 to under-19 before taking over as the B team coach (the same side he played for) when Adrian Birrell was promoted to the A team. Domingo served as the academy coach at Eastern Province, had two stints with Hylton Ackerman at the national academy and coached the South African Under-19 side during the World Cup in Bangladesh in 2004. When Mickey Arthur became the national coach in 2005, Domingo was appointed head coach of the Warriors.
His coaching history is a tale of a man following a profession, not an ex-player taking his game to a different level post-retirement. It's a position that is often pursued and excelled in by former players, which makes not being one a unique challenge. "Because I don't have the playing credentials, I have to earn respect in other ways. I don't know if that's fair or not but it's just the way it is," Domingo said. "I've had to take the tougher route and become a student of the game."
Fortunately for Domingo, he was identified early and was part of a programme that made that study possible. He spent time with Bob Woolmer and Graham Ford in the South Africa dressing room in the early 2000s, as an apprentice of sorts, an initiative driven by Cricket South Africa to develop Domingo as a coach. There, he formed a bond with Kirsten and Ford, who shares a similarly unglamorous career as a cricketer, having played just seven first-class matches.
"Graham Ford has been my biggest inspiration as a coach," Domingo said. "The way he maintains the same demeanour in victory and defeat was something I learned from. Both of us didn't reach heights as cricketers but we have gained respect in other ways."
Domingo has built a fortress of admiration at the Warriors, most importantly from his players, through his work ethic and impeccable planning. He gave the franchise a goal, that after three years of him taking over they would win a trophy. They achieved double that and in the 2009-10 season won both the Standard Bank Pro20 and MTN40 titles.
"The Warriors went from being no-hopers to winners. We made seven finals in five years. Okay, we didn't win many of them, but we played a lot of consistent limited-overs cricket to get there," Domingo said. While he was turning the laughing stock of South African franchise cricket into a fearsome side to play against, he didn't harbour any special hopes of being made a national coach. When contacted in the past, Domingo had said it was something he may consider in years to come but he was focussing on "doing the things at the place where I was to the best of my ability."
That was at the Warriors and he thought of little else. Domingo was about to begin drafting the franchise's squad for the Champions League, the competition where they finished as runners-up last year, when Kirsten's call came. "I didn't have a sense of disbelief, just one of excitement," Domingo said. "It was a major turning point in my life .When you get a call from the most wanted coach in world cricket, you don't turn it down."
"Because I don't have the playing credentials, I have to earn respect in other ways. I don't know if that's fair or not but it's just the way it is," Domingo said. "I've had to take the tougher route and become a student of the game."
He brings a completely different skill set to the job that Kirsten, or bowling coach, Allan Donald do. Neither has been involved in coaching on the South African domestic scene in the past, whereas Doming has. He was the head coach of South Africa's last two A tours, both against Bangladesh, and has intricate knowledge of players in the set-up, having worked with almost all of them. "I know the guys well. I was the coach when Johan Botha played his first match when he was 12. Robin Peterson would have been the best man at my wedding before he had to jet off somewhere. I think I can add value with my knowledge of the players."
The only players Domingo does not have good first-hand knowledge of are Graeme Smith and AB de Villiers, with nothing but a special memory to connect him to South Africa's new ODI and Twenty20 captain: "AB scored a century against the Eastern Province team I was coaching in the Under-15 final in 2001."
Domingo's coaching style, which is based on relationship building, just like Kirsten's, means he is already well equipped to make connections. "I want to know what's going on in their lives, but I also know where to draw the line. I'm not a dictator and I don't rule with an iron fist but the players must learn to take responsibility for their actions."
Accountability is an instruction that is often repeated but is perhaps best taught by someone who has not led the pampered life of a professional sportsman. Domingo brings those real-life skills to the new South African regime. He is the one who spent his formative years in the industry learning the game and working his way to the position he is in now, without the help of a bat or ball. It's made him a mature and grounded man, something that is important in this age, when being a sports star often means being devoid of reality.
Domingo has always been a man firmly rooted in actualities and as he takes on his new role, hopefully some of that will rub off. It also means he has a clear vision of what he wants to bring in to and take from the job. "I want some scope to develop my own coaching," he said. "I want to be able to pass ideas on to Gary and know he will be receptive of them. I know he is the kind of person who values the opinion of others and I want to be able to have a say too."